Jeff Glor talks to Dean Bakopoulos about "My American Unhappiness," a darkly funny story about a man in Wisconsin who aims to conduct an epic survey of American unhappiness. It is Bakopoulos's second novel.
Dean Bakopoulos: Well, for starters, I wanted to write a funny book. But that was hard, because, like a lot of Americans, I was coming to terms with the end of a big party, where, as they say, "mistakes were made." I felt mostly anger and anxiety, not funny stuff. The stock market collapse, the bursting of the housing bubble, and record unemployment -- all of that stuff hit very close to home for me, and I wanted to process it, to come to grips in a novel about what it feels like to realize how so many things that we do in this country are unsustainable. I wanted to write a book about reckless optimism -- both the dangerous side of that, as well as the darkly humorous, endearing one. Thus, the character of Zeke Pappas was born -- a delusional, lonely, quixotic and soon-to-be-bankrupt alter ego that refused to admit that the party was over, that mistakes were made, and that he had almost nobody in the world he could turn to as his crisis deepened. That's where Zeke and I part ways. I'm happily married with two dazzling little kids; I have lots of friends, and a good family. But I wondered, as I imagined Zeke's struggle, how I might have survived trying times if I didn't have that network.
DB: I was surprised to see how many great lessons about narrative structure you could learn from watching romantic comedies. That is my rather unmanly guilty pleasure. When the writing went south, I turned to Netflix and the romantic comedies on demand and lost myself. I cried a little, I laughed a little, I felt better. Don't judge.
DB: That is a terrifying question, and as much as I'd like to say something manly -- a lumberjack, a knight, a shark hunter, etc. - -to make up for that last wimpy answer, the truth is I'd probably be a high school English teacher. Literature, I think, probably saved my life, and I had two outstanding high school English teachers -- Jeff Bean and Ron Quick -- who, now that I think back on it, probably saved me from some pretty bad choices and directions I was tempted to pursue.
DB: I'm reading and re-reading "The Great Gatsby," because next week, at Grinnell College where I teach, I plan to try and convert my students to my position that the book is the finest American novel ever written. I'm also reading Jeffrey Eugenides "The Marriage Plot." He's also a Greek novelist from Detroit, whom everybody knows now that he has a Pulitzer Prize. I'm often referred to as "What's His Face? The other Greek writer from Detroit."
DB: I'm almost done with a novel called "Evolve," a futuristic retelling of Hamlet, if Hamlet was a 17-year-old girl living in a down-and-out Rust Belt town controlled by an evil agri-business outfit, and if Ophelia was a hunky poor kid from the wrong side of the tracks. It involves ghosts, secrets, and class warfare, which is suddenly all the rage.