REVIEW: The Committee On Town Happiness by Alan Michael Parker
Till now, Alan Michael Parker has been more a poet than a novelist. He has seven collections of poetry, going back to 1997, but only two full-length fictions, and none before 2005. Nonetheless, that first novel appears to be in dialog with his latest (on Dzanc Books, I should add: also my current publisher). The Committee on Town Happiness can be read as, among other things, a joshing inversion of Parker’s ’05 title, Cry Uncle.
Uncle was the sort of broody noir we expect from a smalltown Southern setting; its clues led to racism and desperation. Parker’s latest Town, however, may have details that suggest the South, and the place may be getting whack, but the book never figures out who done it or why. It doesn’t even have a gumshoe!
The closest thing to a central character is the eponymous Committee, speaking in first person plural. Also the text presents its trouble — the town is emptying out and the Committee is helpless — as if through a kaleidoscope, with recurring elements tumbling into different combinations over more than 30 chapters, none of them more than a couple of pages long. The experiment recalls the miniaturist Calvino of Invisible Cities, and that work does seem to be one of Parker’s models, but I felt a closer correlation to Donald Barthelme’s dwarf collective in Snow White. Cities is a sober business, in the final analysis, whereas in Snow White, we’re laughing all the way.
Comedy is certainly the rule and rationale for Town Happiness, but it’s comedy of a rare sophistication. Consider this hypothetical “map of everything we’ve ever experienced:”
…red dots for traumatic childhood moments, green dots for carefree days, blue triangles for extra-special times, …fuchsia oblongs for favorite teachers who had babies without telling anyone, periwinkle oblongs for favorite teachers who coached sports and drove ridiculously obvious sports cars…
The pleasures of such a passage are almost musical. It moves from general (“traumatic,” “carefree’) to specific (those teacher sketches), meanwhile relying on natural juxtaposition and, especially, savvy implication. That is, similar items cluster, like childhood times or beloved faculty, and then these are made to sparkle by business only hinted at. How, for instance, is the coach’s car “incredibly obvious?” To know the answer is to know midlife crisis and wish-fulfillment by indirect means — to understand fallen humanity, no less.
This life-map actually makes a decent stand-in for the entire book. The shred of a plot pits the disappearance of the townsfolk, always mysterious, against our Committee, struggling to stop the exodus. But how maintain happiness in this battered world? Where the best adulthood can offer is, say, a sports car? Just seeing the car sets your friends chuckling, and so Parker’s glinting strings of indirections please us with their color and cleverness, but wind up reminding us we’ll never escape the game-board. My copy is speckled with stars next to passages at once brilliant and, when you think about it, gloomy:
Teenagers mutter and giggle in the dark warm night. There they played as children, lives they now disown, as the moon sings in their bodies.
The recurring chapter titles, like “Errors of Our Forebears” and (of course) “Report from the Committee on Town Happiness,” deepen the sense of befuddled entrapment. Even the party-colored balloons, sometimes taken aloft in search of the missing, wind up downed and deflated, the baskets beneath them empty. None of which is to say that, page by page, this Town doesn’t keep a visitor happy. Certainly Parker’s brought off a winner for readers like myself, intrigued by alternative narrative forms and vivified by sprightly sentences. My misgivings, rather, have to do with the lack of some viable counteraction to the prevailing diminuendo. From the first, we doubt the Committee’s work will succeed, and the text never sustains an alternative outcome for more than a few lines.
Still, by and large I was glad I caught the phenomenon that is Town Happiness. I particularly admired Parker’s inventive way around another leitmotif, “The Scandal.” These chapters never specify the dirty deed, but they tease us marvelously, sometimes with a single word — “motel,” for instance. If that motel tends to induce claustrophobia, well, haven’t a good century’s worth of readers felt suffocated, but also illuminated, after they stopped by Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg?
by Alan Michael Parker