When is a bomb not a bomb? When it's a novel, of course. Peter D. Kramer's Spectacular Happiness is an intellectual blitzkrieg of a book, setting off depth charges of meaning long after its pages are closed. Kramer's protagonist, Chip Samuels, is the sort of man for whom the term mild-mannered seems to have been coined: college teacher, part-time carpenter, ambivalent anarchist, noncustodial father of a dearly loved son. When someone begins blowing up beachfront homes in his Cape Cod hometown, Samuels is the last person anyone should suspect--and yet the bombing campaign is his personal form of redemption, the work of an ex-radical finally coming into his own. Ironically, the resulting media frenzy turns him into the last thing any right-thinking radical would wish to become: a celebrity, a spokesperson, a rich man, an insider.
Samuels's story takes the shape of an extended journal written for his absentee son. It's a risky form for a novel, both introspective and deliberate, and for the first third of the book its discursive style can be a challenge to read. Kramer is the psychiatrist author of the bestselling Listening to Prozac, and his first novel often proceeds according to the rhythms of nonfiction: light on scene and dialogue, heavy on exposition and allusion. He seems never to have met a book he didn't like, and he's not at all afraid to wear his learning on his sleeve, repeatedly citing Marx, Robbe-Grillet, Sartre, Dickens, Thoreau, and Walter Benjamin. Fortunately, it's all in the service of character, and not quite as intimidating as it sounds.
Ultimately, Samuels has the temperament not of a terrorist but of an artist. He finds Marx inferior to Dickens as a thinker, and describes the bombings as a form of personal expression, reflecting his own quiet fastidiousness and keen sense of the absurd. But what are the moral implications of his actions? We're left to work that one out for ourselves, with not even a crazed manifesto to point us in the right direction: "I have never intended to impose political solutions on my neighbors. I have hoped to say at most, We know the dilemma we are in, the human dilemma." The human dilemma is, of course, the territory of both the psychiatrist and the novelist. And in his first foray into fiction, Kramer asks questions he can't answer and raises issues he won't resolve--a kind of "silent therapy" for a culture that could use some time on the couch. --Mary Park
From Publishers Weekly
Kramer's chief claim to fame to date is his passionate anti-Prozac treatise (Listening to Prozac), but this debut novel about a disgruntled Cape Cod teacher who becomes an ecoterrorist should help earn him a serious literary audience as well. Kramer's protagonist is Chip Samuels, a thoughtful, passionate community college teacher who becomes increasingly disgruntled as he underachieves in midlife, his marriage falls apart, he loses his beloved son and he sees society becoming increasingly driven by meaningless consumption. He expresses his dissatisfaction by teaming up with an old lover in a plot to blow up expensive beach houses as a protest against the privileges of wealth and the degradation of the environment, starting with the home of a local mafioso whom they also manage to implicate in the plot. But Samuels avoids the tragic fate his actions seem to foreshadow when the media picks up his story and, in a bizarre commentary on the cult of celebrity, turns him into a counterculture hero, leading him into a new life as a network talking head. The combination of the near-total absence of dialogue and an extremely introspective approach makes the first half of this novel a rather tough go, but once Kramer gets his story in gear he proves to be an extremely literate author as he throws himself into the task of creating a very memorable protagonist who becomes both hero and antihero. The depth, quality and ambition of Kramer's prose will surprise those expecting a superficial crossover effort. This novel will score high on reviewers' and readers' checklists. (July)Forecast: Kramer's fame will give this novel instant exposure, but it may cause some readers to dismiss the book, too. Respectful reviews will be required to tilt the balance. If they materialize, sales potential is high, helped by a five-city author tour.
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