Monday, June 13, 2011
Is Zeke Pappas a Bad Guy? Perhaps. Perhaps Not. Either Way, He'd Surely Enjoy a Bad Guy Manhattan.
I read Dean Bakopoulos's new novel My American Unhappiness in much the same way that I might enthusiastically drink a newly discovered small batch beer. I picked it up, admired the packaging, read the label (jacket copy and author bio) and then cracked it open. And, much like a favorite six pack of good beer, I went through it in one sitting and when I got to the knockout of an ending, I didn't want the night to be over.
Like many other contemporary novels, this is a book that provides us with a protagonist who isn't always easy to root for. This phenomenon makes many a kind reader crazy. My (very kind) mother says things like "Why would I want to read about these people? They're horrible!" Needless to say, mom wasn't a fan of The Corrections.
But what makes My American Happiness unique among a number of novels with vaguely untrustworthy, unlikable, or sometimes downright loathsome main characters is that Bakopoulos seems uninterested in cutting his protagonist, Zeke Pappas, much slack. Even a character like Fuckhead, the drug-addled central figure from Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son, seems let off the hook in a way that Bakopoulos can't quite allow Zeke. On a few occasions in Jesus' Son, Fuckhead tells the reader that he knows what he's doing is wrong and admits that he feels bad for, say, holding a gun on a guy or for smashing a bunch of baby rabbits while in a druggy, half-conscious haze.
Fuckhead's apparent awareness of how screwed up he is allows the reader to feel at least some sort of empathy for him. He wants desperately to mask the horror of his actions by attempting to explain them away with excuses, and it's Fuckhead's recognition of his own culpability (as evidenced by those excuses) that makes him seem redeemable.
Zeke Pappas, by contrast, is mostly un-self-aware and, as a result, seems an unlikely candidate for our empathy. But if Johnson's Fuckhead provides readers with various excuses for his behavior, Bakopoulos has been wise enough to provide Zeke with plenty of actual, substantive reasons to be unhappy and, indeed, to behave like a crazy asshole. In a purely definitional way, excuses are hollow and are presented in order to deflect blame and to shirk responsibility. Reasons, though, the very nuclei of causality, are somewhat trickier and weightier things.
And that's where this novel's brilliance really lives: Bakopoulos has created an environment and a set of circumstances in which it's hard to imagine not going completely nuts, and I found myself nodding my head at Zeke's outrageousness, saying "Sure, if I'd lost the love of my young life and if my mom was ill, and if I had lost a brother in Iraq and a sister-in-law in a car accident, and if I were tasked with raising my twin nieces and if I couldn't find love though I desperately needed it, I would be a horrible wreck as well."
Given everything he endures, it's a wonder Zeke is as well adjusted as he is. And therein lies at least one of the novel's big and messy truths: we live in a deeply complicated world, and times are bad. People are trying, to varying degrees of success, to hold it together. If that seems a cynical trope, it is, and if circumstances seem dire, it's because--within the purview of this book and beyond it--they are.
This is a book in which it's simultaneously difficult to root for Zeke (he's such an asshole sometimes) while being nearly impossible to want him to fail. Knowing what we know about the world Zeke inhabits (which looks very much like our own), a vote against him seems a vote against ourselves. Bakopoulos provides enough good humor to counter some of the dark political subtext, and the driving line of narrative moves at a good clip and contains enough inventive, old fashioned twists to keep you turning the pages. And like Zeke at the end of a workday, once you reach the novel's end, you'll almost certainly need a drink.
The Cocktail (& a Byzantine Full Disclosure):
Before talking about the cocktail pairing for the book, this post demands a full disclosure: Bakopoulos is an acquaintance who recently read at the Monsters of Poetry reading series in Madison, WI, which I co-curate. The after-party for the reading, which also featured Chicago writer Patrick Somerville, was held at Sardine restaurant in Madison, where I used to tend bar. The owners of Sardine have also sponsored the reading series. Phew. That's a lot of disclosure, but the point here is that after the reading, the bartenders at Sardine whipped up a great cocktail for some of us, and they were calling it the Bad Guy. Essentially, this is a gussied-up Manhattan, but boy did it hit the spot:
The Bad Guy Manhattan:
2 oz. Willett Rye
.75 oz. Punt-e-Mes
2 dashes Angostura Bitters
1. Fill a rocks glass 3/4 full of quality ice. Actually, once big cube or sphere would be great for this one
2. Fill a mixing tin halfway with ice
3. Add the Willett, Punt e Mes, and Angostura to the mixing tin
4. Stir at a moderate pace until you get clear, cold condensation on the outside of your tin (10-15 seconds)
5. Using a Boston strainer, pour the mixture over the ice in your prepped rocks glass
6. Cut a large swath of orange peel and express the orange oil on top of the drink, then garnish the drink with the peel
Oddly, the sharpness of the Willett is mellowed by the Punt e Mes, which itself is quite bitter. With two healthy dashes of Angostura, you add a bit of spice, and expressing the peel over the drink gives it a nice orangey punch right on the nose. It's got a bite and a very vaguely sweet finish, and it's going to be darker because the Punt e Mes is basically brown, as are the bitters. A good brandied cherry couldn't hurt as an additional garnish.