Comic absurdity walks a floss-thin tightrope. A narrative of wacky situations can have us laughing helplessly, but only if the absurdity conveys a certain respect for the reader’s intelligence. A comic step too far can feel mocking, and a mocked reader can easily delete an author’s name from their mental (or online) “to read” queue.
By the time Brock Clarke risks that step, you’re mere pages from the end, and given the comic absurdities he’s traversed with impeccable balance — to the point where you wonder how in the world he’s going to wrap this up — you grant him some leeway.
In short, “Who Are You, Calvin Bledsoe?” is a head-shaking delight. That’s really all the review it needs.
Of course there’s more to say, but it’s less about the novel than about its process.
But first, the plot: Calvin Bledsoe was named after John Calvin, a Protestant theologian in the 1500s. His mother, Nora, herself a theologian, wrote a world-renowned treatise on the Christian reformer, and her devotion to him, as well as to her fame, is consuming.
Now 49, Calvin has led a far less remarkable life in his mother’s home, although his current job as a blogger for the pellet stove industry is proving oddly satisfying. Still, he wishes that the legion of pellet stove fans would sometimes, even once, leave a comment.
When Nora dies in a train collision so fiery that she is incinerated with no trace, Calvin is truly alone — until an unknown aunt appears at the funeral. Telling Calvin, “It’s time to grow up,” she more or less kidnaps him to Switzerland, where events unfold with comic and often criminal absurdity, frequently with quotations from John Calvin serving to illuminate the chaos.
Certain books, at certain points, inspire the question: How did the author come up with this stuff?
We never expect an answer, of course. So it was surprising to find within the press materials an essay by Brock Clarke explaining how he came up with this stuff. Even more disarming was his wholly transparent credit given to being inspired by Graham Greene’s “Travels With My Aunt,” a well-received 1969 novel in which a woman and her nephew traverse a world of crime, adventure and general shenanigans.
As Clarke wrote: “You want to write a novel because you want to feel, and want your readers to feel, the way you felt when you first read the novels you’ve loved. Which is why so many novels fail, and get abandoned: because they can’t come close to living up to the standards of the novel that made you want to write a novel in the first place.”
Clarke, praised for his 2008 bestseller “The Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England,” explained that he’d worked for two years on a story about a lonely middle-aged man, aiming for a novel about How We Live Now before abandoning it. Then three things happened: He reread Greene’s book. Then he overheard a man in an airport “rhapsodize loudly, and at length,” about his pellet stove. Then he heard novelist and essayist Marilynn Robinson “rhapsodize loudly, and at length” about Protestant theologian John Calvin.
Just like that, he had his inspiration and set about learning about things of which he knew nothing: namely, John Calvin, criminal masterminds, blogging and pellet stoves. Clarke opens his brain and his heart here, revealing a creative process that he credits not to innate talent — which he clearly has — but to hard work, luck and an admiration for the work of others. It reveals a generosity of spirit and a practical humility that seems often in short supply these days.
Together, these elements led him — and ultimately us, the readers — into examining what it means to seek escape from the things we hate, what it costs us to get far enough away, and whether we actually deserve the opportunity to ditch the past.
“Who Are You, Calvin Bledsoe?” is absurd and absurdly entertaining. But Brock Clarke also reveals himself as a gentleman and an author worth following.
Kim Ode is a former Star Tribune features writer.
Who Are You, Calvin Bledsoe?
By: Brock Clarke.
Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 293 pages, $26.95.