BOMBS CAN BLOW people back to life. "I have been warned that there is a bomb in this cottage, a bomb not of my own making," explains Chip Samuels in Peter D. Kramer's debut novel Spectacular Happiness. "From my work, I know how hard it is to hide emplacements of explosives. I have looked in every room. Nothing seems amiss."
Samuels is an academic bomber awaiting arrest for destroying mansions on Cape Cod. Appropriate to that waiting game, he's a passive character, unable to save his beloved son from being forced to go on Ritalin. (The savvy take on psychopharmacology comes from Kramer's duel identity as a doctor and the author of Listening to Prozac.) Samuels's pain has a studied quality to it, as if he's observing the feeling through his words rather than his person: "You were torn away from me," he reflects. "I felt like a man operated on for a melanoma, with a quarter of the body cut away." It's the removed and resigned explanation of a depressive, a man who experiences emotion through the proxy of literature. As a child, he was Pip from Great Expectations; as an adult, he is Zola's anarchist hounded by a pack of dogs.
These political strains guide the first half of Kramer's aching novel of fractured families and class alienation. The son of an alcoholic carpenter, Samuels goes to Harvard and comes back to the Cape as a blue-collar intellectual--a community-college teacher who goes on to fritter away his radical ideals. Yet the desertion of his wife and son drives Samuels into an activist scheme with his childhood tormentor Sukey, now a drunken realtor: explosions as a kind of massive agitprop art project. Dynamite gives their lives meaning; it makes them feel alive.
And, as if infected with that strain of enthusiasm, Kramer's book turns into an over-the-top satire, as Samuels becomes a folk hero and celebrity. Soon, the public is demanding more bombs. Kramer writes his detonations as news montages, taking Samuels through the tacky corridors of wealth and power. With lovingly obscure medical terms, Kramer has terrorists slashing the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon of the Pink Panther. The newscasters report all with breathless fake sincerity.
On a deeper level, Kramer uses the bombing campaign to create a kind of forensic analysis of society and the individual, a sorting through of evidence from before and after things came apart. Ultimately, Spectacular Happiness presents its characters the chance to sort through the wreckage and try to put a life back together again.