cover image My American Unhappiness

My American Unhappiness

Dean Bakopoulos, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $24 (288p) ISBN 978-0-15-101344-9

In Bakopoulos's wan second novel (after Please Don't Come Back from the Moon), Zeke Pappas, the director of a humanities institute in Wisconsin, is conducting an epic survey of American unhappiness, a project he considers his life's work. Misery is a hobby of this self-regarding misanthrope, whose interest in others' sadness can verge on fetishism ("Show me a sad woman, and I will fall in love"). As if to oblige his brooding, fate afflicts him with a relentless barrage of personal tragedies. Zeke, who is already a borderline alcoholic widower caring for his two orphaned nieces, learns that his mother is dying of cancer and that she plans to deny him custody of the girls unless he gets married before she dies. His candidates are a barista, his assistant, his neighbor, and, naturally, Sofia Coppola—though, really, any female will do. Zeke, unfortunately, comes off as more odious than endearing, glib and pompous for all of his slapstick moping, and lacking the depth of character needed to reveal him as anything other than an unpleasant schmuck, which is especially unfortunate considering Bakopoulos's wit and breezy prose. (June)