“Why are you so unhappy?”
That’s the question that Zeke Pappas, a thirty-three-year-old scholar, asks almost everybody he meets as part of an obsessive project, “The Inventory of American Unhappiness.” The answers he receives—a mix of true sadness and absurd complaint—create a collage of woe. Zeke, meanwhile, remains delightfully oblivious to the increasingly harsh realities that threaten his daily routine, opting instead to focus his energy on finding the perfect mate so that he can gain custody of his orphaned nieces. Following steps outlined in a women’s magazine, the ever-optimistic Zeke identifies some “prospects”: a newly divorced neighbor, a coffeehouse barista, his administrative assistant, and Sofia Coppola (“Why not aim high?”).
Excerpt: My American Unhappiness
Zeke Pappas is off to the Rotary Club luncheon.
Nine years ago, in the summer of 1999, I was hired to be the director of the Great Midwestern Humanities Initiative (GMHI), a federally funded program designed “to foster a greater sense of community, increase public literacy, and strengthen levels of civic engagement in the American heartland.” The program was typical of the projects launched at the end of that optimistic and high-rolling decade, as its founders believed it could cease or at least slow the brain drain that was occurring in that region of the country, both the crumbling Rust Belt and the blighted Grain Belt. I was raised in Madison, Wisconsin, and I still live there, a city full of transplants where everybody’s optimism about the heartland seems to outpace the reality of our condition: we are dying.
People have been leaving the Midwest for decades and they still are many decades later and nobody is particularly surprised. From the streets of Cleveland and Detroit and Gary, to the fertile fields of Wisconsin and Iowa and southern Indiana, the young people flee. They go south and west, to the newly cosmopolitan and sprawling cities like Atlanta and Orlando and Salt Lake; they deal with the heat—it’s worth it to them. I can imagine them sweating, those exiles, in newly purchased summer suits of linen and seersucker, in dresses that bare their still pale and overly broad shoulders. Some of the exiles head west to the great mountains and the deserts and the outdoorsy, freestyling existence that such places as Boulder and Bozeman and Tucson seem to promise. They go to sunny and arid places with high-tech corridors and solar energy projects. Some go directly to the coasts: to San Francisco or New York, those hubs of artistry and commerce with their diverse and teeming neighborhoods, the magnetic bustle of business and action, the sounds of foreign music and unknown spices wafting out of the windows and into the sky and streets. They do not stay here in the Midwest with its sagging and empty auto plants, steel factories running at half power, and farms plagued by unprofitable hogs, underpriced grain, silos in sore need of repair.
The founders of the Great Midwestern Humanities Initiative included a gaggle of congressional leaders, led by Wisconsin Republican Quince Leatherberry, an anti-immigration conservative from the state’s wealthy Fifth District, who, despite his constant sermons on self-reliance and hard work, has never held a job outside of Capitol Hill and has lived, largely, on the fat of his father’s land. Leatherberry, an unlikely ally for public humanities funding, was joined by H. M. Logan, a business leader and the chair of GMHI, as well as an odd alliance of advocates, vigorously paid lobbyists, and oft-bewildered but generous businessmen who believed that in order to slow our regional brain drain, young Midwesterners simply needed to know the hallowed heritage of their homeland, to read the rich literature of their own region, and to understand the blessed uniqueness of their landscape and culture. Then they might stay!
It was also believed, by the founders, that the study of the humanities, in the broader sense, might enlighten the work force of the Midwest, ignite a wildfire of innovation and experimentation in the private sector, from automotives to agriculture, economic combustion engines fueled by the bright minds of Michigan and Wisconsin and Iowa and Minnesota and Ohio and Nebraska, digesting and ruminating upon the works of our own undervalued sons and daughters: Willa Cather and F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis. If only the music of our own famous musicians and composers—John Alden Carpenter, Benny Goodman, Miles Davis, Bob Dylan—were lodged forever in our internal melodies; if only we allowed the images of John Steuart Curry and Grant Wood to enliven our vision of place; if only we realized that we share the prairie with the same lines, light, and landscapes that inspired Frank Lloyd Wright and moved Aldo Leopold—if only, if only, then our engineers in Detroit and our productivity managers in Cleveland and our logistics coordinators in South Bend would discover new ideas and revolutionary technologies.
It was, as Representative Leatherberry said, “a real win-win.”
“Oh, the humanities!” once exclaimed benefactor Howard Morgan Logan, after a particularly rousing Governor’s Lecture in the Humanities by the visiting critic Stanley Fish. Logan, a retired oil man and closeted homosexual originally from Kenosha, turned to a harrumphing Congressman Leatherberry and whispered, tears in his eyes, “Oh, life!”
I was barely twenty-four the year I took this job, armed with a self-designed bachelor’s degree in “The Narrative Text and Social Movements” from the University of Michigan, and I believed in many things, including the noble and mind-boggling mission of the GMHI: To encourage and advance civic engagement, commercial initiative, economic development, and regional pride in the American Midwest through the study and promotion of the humanities disciplines.
I was charismatic then, I worked out every day, and my eyes shone with the sort of confidence I think we all gleaned from our silver-haired president in that decade: no conflict too deep to resolve, no domestic issue too muddy to clarify, no potential lover too distant or risky to bed, no humanities discipline too abstract to define. In fact, I’d been the one who’d written the successful vision statement that had landed us ten million dollars in federal money—an earmark added to a domestic spending bill sponsored, for some unknown reason, by Representative Leatherberry, which, he claimed on the House floor, would somehow help the United States clamp down on illegal immigrants. And so the newly incorporated board of GMHI, chaired by H. M. Logan and supported by letters of proclamation from the governors of thirteen Midwestern states, chose Madison, Wisconsin, as the project’s headquarters, appointed me as the executive director, and then pretty much left me alone except for twice-a-year meetings that very few board members ever attended. I’d been working part-time at a small, erudite independent bookstore near campus, where H. M. Logan was a loyal customer and, to all appearances, had no small crush on me. The job was mine, most likely, for no reason other than this: he wanted to spend more time with me.
Today, nearly a decade later, the economy is in shambles, the nation is at war, and my own job is precariously perched on a list of the luxuries we can no longer afford. I am sitting at a banquet table in the corner of a reception room at the Marriott on the far west side of the city, picking at a rubbery piece of pork loin smothered in a raspberry barbecue sauce. The West Side Rotarians are about to commence their weekly meeting, and I am, courtesy of H. M. Logan, guest speaker, an honor I accepted because it is widely known that Rotarians are often insurance brokers and lawyers and bankers and have the ability to be philanthropists. The GMHI is now in dire need of philanthropy.
The club’s president calls the meeting to order with a gavel. All of the Rotarians stand at once. There is a short prayer, led by a man in a blue suit with neatly parted white hair. Just as I manage to mumble my “Amen,” the crowd turns abruptly to the left, where a large American flag stands on a raised platform on a golden pole. The Rotarians begin to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, something I have not done since sixth grade. For a moment, I place my left hand over my right breast, but by the time the crowd is pledging to the republic for which it stands, I have the correct hand in the correct position, and I am hoping nobody noticed my very unpatriotic faux pas. At “justice for all,” I sit down, but when I realize everyone else has remained standing, I get back to my feet.
Logan looks over at me and gives me a thin-lipped, embarrassed smile. Even after all these years, he is still a bit smitten by me, even if I can’t quite say a convincing Pledge of Allegiance; he confesses secrets to me that he can’t tell to any of his other friends. I am an avowed liberal, and, as a dedicated neo-con, H. M. believes that I have lax moral standards of some sort, but the truth of the matter is that I do not condone married men, with four children and nine grandchildren, hiring high-priced male prostitutes (for instance), as H. M. does when he is in Washington, DC.
H. M. smiles and nods in my direction as I hear the club president say something about a song book, and then the Rotary Club of Madison’s West Side begins to sing “America the Beautiful,” not in the lilting, halfhearted, heads-down manner of schoolchildren, but in a bellowing chorus dominated by forceful tenors and hearty basses. There are women in the audience, but you cannot hear them singing and I think some of them are simply mouthing the words.
The singing is what truly flusters me, I suppose: So much earnestness! So much blessed assurance! This sort of social confidence, the sort of bravado that allows men in suits to sing in public, always makes me squirm. Even after 9/11, when earnestness seemed to be appropriate and easy, I still felt uncomfortable, almost disheartened, anytime members of Congress and other power brokers began singing patriotic hymns at public events. There are many of us who love our country, who have spent decades examining its complex woes and its noble ways, and simply cannot bring ourselves to be the sort of highly visible cheerleaders our media demand. The spirit of critical inquiry and constant reflection is too bright within us. I wonder how many capable, smart, and worthy public servants might shy away from office simply because they are not comfortable with such outward displays of emotional patriotism.
This particular afternoon, however, I have at least one red, white, and blue ace up my sleeve, a patriotic credential that is legitimate, that is the opposite of the empty gestures so often trotted out for the sake of media events. My brother, Cougar, was killed while serving overseas in Iraq. I mention this at the beginning of my talk. I say, “It does my heart good to hear such patriotic voices this afternoon. I can’t hear those words without thinking of my brother, whom everybody called Cougar and who died while serving our nation in Iraq.”
This generates some polite applause and the collective gasp of concern that always accompanies this announcement. I feel a little guilty using my dead brother like this, but I do not think Cougar would mind if he were alive. I was a generous and warm-hearted older brother who had helped him in many ways over the years. We grew distant and our relationship contentious before he died, but I like to believe that if his spirit has any sort of eternal state, he would say, to whatever angelic neighbors he has on his lonely cloud, that I was a good brother.
Thus, I stop short of mentioning that his final e-mail message to me informed me that I was being “a self-righteous, conceited, washed-up, elitist, cowardly little puss.” This characterization was in response to a picture of me that our mother had just sent him. I was marching up State Street in an antiwar protest, shouting and holding a sign that said, “Regime change begins at home.” I was also wearing a T-shirt that sported the Canadian maple leaf, which I insisted, vainly to my mother, was not intended as any sort of statement or symbol. (Like many of my peers, I have a drawer full of T-shirts that mean nothing: Drink Orange Crush. Be a Pepper. Do the Dew.)
“Why did you send that e-mail to Cougar?” I’d asked her. This was before he was dead, when the war was still new and people like me believed we could end it with T-shirt slogans and halfhearted chanting. “Why on earth?”
“How can you hate your own country?” my mother had sobbed.
“I don’t,” I said. “I swear.”
Despite the sympathy card I play early in my speech, in short, my talk to the Madison West Side Rotary Club does not go well: whatever is on the minds of these upright citizens gathered before me, it is not the public humanities—that much is certain. Once I notice this, I’m flustered and have a difficult time making my main points, and several of the suited men in the audience start to fiddle with their BlackBerries, as if urgent, potentially million-dollar e-mails are attempting to vibrate their way into consciousness. Even a rather zippy little joke about whether Brett Favre would make a comeback attempt falls flat, and so about ten minutes into my prepared remarks, I pause and say, “Well, I am sure that many of you have specific questions about the work that we do, so maybe I’ll stop there and take a few. Anybody?”
Did you have anything to do with the funding of Mapplethorpe and that cross in urine?
Do you fund religious organizations, or is there a bias against Christianity in the work you do?
Do you fund individuals? I am working on a history of my grandfather’s company, a shipping outfit that once graced the shores of Lake Superior. Would you be interested in funding that?
And then, this, from a gray-haired, pocket-eyed man at the far back table: Why didn’t you sing with more conviction? Where was your gusto? I watched you singing; your singing was pathetic.
I left the podium. Exactly! Where is my gusto?
A clairvoyant when it comes to the Starbucks orders of strangers, a quixotic renegade when it comes to the federal bureaucracy, and a devoted believer in the afternoon cocktail and the evening binge, Zeke has an irreverent voice that is a marvel of lacerating wit and heart-on-sleeve emotion, underscored by a creeping paranoia and made more urgent by the hope that if he can only find a wife, he might have a second chance at life.
My American Unhappiness “shimmers with mischief and offbeat charm. A dark entertainment infused by a bluesy yearning for a better America.”
“Bakopoulos writes with great heart and a cold eye, and his limpid, ironic prose will appeal to those who like the early work of Martin Amis.”
“My American Unhappiness is a smart, funny, charming novel – an incisive critique of the way we live now, but aremed, unlike contemporary satire, with a big, generous heart. I got addicted to the misadventures of Zeke Pappas. I didn’t want the book to end.”
Dan Chaon, author of Await Your Reply
“In Zeke Pappas, Dean Bakopoulos has invented a man for all rainy seasons – a horny, heartbroken cousin of Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe, telling a long, tall tale of anomie in the heartland.”
Tom Piazza, author of City of Refuge
“If the nature of despair, as Kierkegaard wrote, is to be unaware of itself, then Zeke Pappas is its perfect spokesman: a blithely deluded nebbish whose epic longings—to document the emptiness at the center of American life and to win the heart of Sofia Coppola and/or his local Starbucks barista—propel him into ever more twisted predicaments. There’s no such thing as unhappiness when you’re holding a Dean Bakopoulos novel in your hands.”
Jonathan Miles, author of Dear American Airlines
“Vivid as a searchlight gliding across suburban picture windows , My American Unhappiness displays its author’s saddened comic wisdom, as apparently self-effacing as it is marvelously inventive and observant. Dean Bakopoulos is a writer to watch, a novelist to cherish.”
Peter Straub, author of A Dark Matter
“Zeke Pappas, the visionary behind the American Unhappiness project, is the perfect hero for our times – an age of J. Crew catalogs and Starbucks lattes, of political absurdities and almost-fractured families barely holding themselves together. In telling Zeke’s story, Dean Bakopoulos brings together razor-sharp comic timing, brilliant social commentary, and big-hearted compassion that embraces the imperfection of American life. The result is a smart, funny and exceptionally entertaining book.”
Alix Ohlin, author of Babylon and Other Stories
“My American Unhappiness is a major accomplishment from one of my generation’s finest storytellers, a profoundly funny, moving, beautifully-detailed, and ultimately hopeful portrait of our country in a certain moment. Its self-deprecating hero, Zack Pappas, earnest, kind, and brooding, with wry intelligence and deep compassion, is indelible. I loved every page of this book. The torch has been passed — Dean Bakopoulos is our next great Midwestern writer.”
Davy Rothbart, The Lone Surfer of Montana, Kansas: Stories, founder and editor of Found Magazine, contributor to public radio’s This American Life
“Dean Bakopoulos in an American prophet — who divines the end of optimism in this brilliant new novel that will choke you with tears and laughter. My American Unhappiness deserves a hallowed place on the shelf somewhere among Studs Terkel’s Working and Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. ”
Benjamin Percy, The Wilding and Refresh, Refresh