The Committee on Town Happiness, by Alan Michael Parker. Westland, Michigan: Dzanc Books. 225 pages. $14.95, paper.
I’ve got ninety-nine problems but this book ain’t one.
Seriously, though, in Alan Michael Parker’s new collection of ninety-nine linked stories, The Committee on Town Happiness, it is hard to find an error in his ways.
The stories all follow the titular committee, who oversees Generic Small Town A. In said small town, the committee ensures happiness through the use of the Royal We and voting on any and everything. And then voting on it again. And again. Sometimes they vote on whether to vote. Often they vote on that vote and make sure that each vote is properly notated in the minutes. Sometimes they vote to destroy the minutes. All in all, there’s a whole lot of voting going on, all because the Committee believes that “happiness prospers when compartmentalized.”
And thanks to the Committee everything is presumably happy, that is until residents of the town start to disappear. After people begin disappearing, the Committee sends up a hot air balloon to search for the missing. When the balloon goes missing, the Committee sends up a second secret balloon. This, too, goes missing. More townsfolk disappear. Stores begin to close as the population dwindles. In an attempt to maintain happiness, parties are held according to strict rules developed by the Committee. The rules were, of course, voted on. Disappearances aren’t the only problems that the Committee is forced to face. Scandal is afoot, too, in the form of an extramarital affair. More voting on what to do. Then, more parties. In order to maintain their hold on happiness, the Committee publishes reports, ranking the levels of happiness in town. These “numbers,” as they’re colloquially referred to in the book, are at times laugh-out-loud funny.
Parker, if he has not spent time sitting in council meetings, has done a damn good job of making it up. The lists pertaining to whatever vote is about to occur are often hilarious. The banal abuts the absurd and the reader is left to read through, stop, and question what the hell is wrong with the committee.
Here are the new, exciting numbers:
Daily joy, 3.
Lurking suspicions, 3.
Finicky responses to stimuli, 4.
Faith in the Committee on Town Happiness, n/a.
In addition, Parker creates a slew of other committees that the Committee must interact with at various points. What makes these various committees so effective in their deployment in this book is the hilarious and sad fact that they are all utterly believable—if towns could create these in real life, they probably would. They include: “The Danger for Fun,” “The Committee for the Restitution of Public Integrity,” “The Committee on Emergency Gatherings,” “The Committee on Science,” and the “Gesture Consultant.”
Parker is his strongest when he details the little things that go on in this book. Asides litter the prose and these are the gems that illuminate the backstage of whichever Committee member(s) narrate the book. We get snippets of what really drives the narrator in moments like describing what made the longest meeting of the year the longest, “(donuts, doilies, special cider) …” and when talking about drinking. Parker’s narrator says, “He was a little befuddled—nay, put out—by the Bloody Mary mix. Who wouldn’t spring for a pepper grinder? The nerve.”
Another well-rendered and persistent problem in the town is The Edge, a place out beyond the town that the townsfolk simply cannot understand. Very reminiscent of M. Night Shamalyan’s The Village, the townsfolk—the Committee, especially—fear The Edge and fear what happens beyond The Edge. The pathetic way that they go about testing the limits of the edge really works to highlight the insipid nature of the Committee. When a shallow grave is found near The Edge, the Committee acts predictably, with fear and confusion funneled into votes about any and everything else.
For anyone who has ever spent time in a small town committee meeting of any sort, the jargon and bureau-speak that goes on throughout this book will be not just familiar, but eloquently executed as well. When confronted with the possibility of emergency, an edict is issued that reads, “In case of emergency, all swimming pools shall be prepared to accept displaced persons: all Snack Huts must be equipped with sleeping bags and hurricane lamps. Sterno and a flare gun, safety cones. One torch per every three employees. In case of inclement weather, T-shirts may be awarded. ‘I Survived…’ slogans are acceptable. No underwater lighting. No realistic inflatables.” Parker is showcasing some of his strongest prose when he infects the banal with the ridiculous.
The distance that Parker keeps from his characters is definitely another strong point of this book. Throughout, readers are never allowed to get too close to any of the characters. Direct dialogue is a rarity, but this is not in the least bit annoying. Everything you learn is relayed by the committee. It is filtered through a slew of he saids and she saids, and it works perfectly. Gossip and hearsay mix with what is actually going on in town, painting a picture of a committee that is trying desperately to maintain what little control they have over a situation that is much bigger than any person or any committee in town.
What Alan Michael Parker gives us in The Committee on Town Happiness—other than the overwhelming urge to stay as far from a public committee meeting for the indeterminate future—is a workshop on how to link flash fiction stories. The works stand on their own just fine (twenty-five of the stories were published previously), but taken together they are an incredibly strong showing of the power of short shorts. For anyone who has ever worked as a journalist and been forced to sit through countless hours of town council meetings—or for those of you who actually enjoy that kind of thing, the listening to politicians talk about not much in roundabout ways—this book will be a smash hit.
Sam Slaughter brews beer and teaches college English.