Who are you, Calvin Bledsoe? by Brock Clarke

I’m a fan of Brock Clarke so I was excited when I won a copy of his latest book, Who are you, Calving Bledsoe? as part of a Goodreads giveaway.

After his mother, a theologian and bestselling author, dies in a fiery explosion, forty-nine-year-old Calvin Bledsoe’s heretofore uninspired life is upended. A stranger shows up at the funeral, claiming to be Calvin’s aunt Beatrice, and insists that Calvin accompany her on a trip to Europe, immediately.

As he and Beatrice traverse the continent, it quickly becomes apparent that his aunt’s clandestine behavior is leading him into danger. Facing a comic menagerie of antiquities thieves, secret agents, religious fanatics, and an ex-wife who’s stalking him, Calvin begins to suspect there might be some meaning behind the madness. Maybe he’s not the person he thought he was? Perhaps no one is who they appear to be? But there’s little time for soul-searching, as Calvin first has to figure out why he has been kidnapped, why his aunt disappeared, and who the hell burned down his house.

I actually did a couple of Q&A’s with Brock over the years (both in email and podcast formats going all the way back to 2003) and have read most of his books.

Favorite author of the blog has a new book and you win a free copy? Boom! blog fodder, right? Normally, yes, but, as any observant reader of this blog knows, I’m not really good at blogging these days.

First, there were delays in getting the book in the mail, plus I moved to a different town. And then with all the craziness of moving, and starting a new job, well, reviews have been sporadic and uneven at best.

I was motivated to review this book, however, because Clarke is actually coming to my area. Alas, I can’t attend as my daughter has a school event. But if you are in Central Ohio I recommend checking out the Thurber House Evening with Authors event (Wednesday, September 25, 7:30pm) if you can.

Apologies and anecdotes aside, I enjoyed the novel. To sum it up in one sentence: It’s a quirky coming of age adventure with a dark sense of humor and a lot of John Calvin quotes.

Like most of Clarke’s fiction it uses extreme and surreal events to shed light on the human condition. The fact the lead character is a blogger may have also influenced my enjoyment.

Kirkus gets at the skill involved:

Command of narrative tone has long been a hallmark of the underheralded Clarke’s (An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England, 2007, etc.) fiction, and here he sustains a tightrope balance between the matter-of-fact observations of the titular protagonist and the increasingly outlandish adventures he finds himself in.

Whether he truly walks that tightrope is the likely determinant of whether you will enjoy this one.

Publishers Weekly is not quite as confident as Kirkus but comes down in positive territory:

At times the freewheeling plot veers into confusing territory, and the weird nicknames and freakishly horrible events that plague the title character go overboard. Still, Clarke keeps it all grounded with standout prose.

I think this review by The Main Edge sums it up very well:

“Who Are You, Calvin Bledsoe?” is the kind of book that doesn’t come along every day, an interesting inversion of a fairly common literary trope. It’s an unusually well-aged coming of age tale, a balding bildungsroman if you will, dropping the spiritual awakening and self-actualization of a youngster crossing the cusp into adulthood into an emotionally inert blogger pushing 50. A character like this – one who presents as innocent and culturally ignorant without ever coming off as stupid or hateful or mean – is difficult to pull off, let alone as your hero.

The funny part is that it works. That’s far from the ONLY funny part, of course. Clarke demonstrates a dry wryness throughout that juxtaposes nicely with the baseline absurdity that lurks just beneath the surface (and occasionally rears its head to make its presence fully known). The narrative is rife with red herrings and odd twists to offset the scattershot emotional motivations; it surrounds the ultra-predictable Calvin with people who are fundamentally unpredictable. As you might imagine, the resulting chaos makes for a hell of a read.

The juxtaposition of dry wryness and absurdity is a great description of Clarke’s writing and this book in particular. So if that sounds like something you would enjoy, Who are you, Calvin Bledsoe? is the book for you.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).