happylandThe idea of a fantastically wealthy doll mogul making a snap decision to transform a small, all-female college town in upstate New York into a veritable life-size dollhouse and the fact that this, more or less, actually took place in the real world likely provided irresistible satirical fodder for the novelist J. Robert Lennon. Beginning at the turn of the century, the village of Aurora, New York, received a five-year makeover from the founder of the American Girl line of dolls and doll accessories, Pleasant Rowland. Many of the changes – converting a dive bar into a tasteful restaurant, gentrifying the village inn and market and restoring historical homes – that Rowland made to Aurora are almost exactly similar to the changes Rowland’s “double” (one Happy Masters) orchestrates in the course of this novel.

This raises the issue of whether, in attempting to satirize real world events, the novel runs the risk of not being a satire at all but more of a thinly-veiled history of Rowland’s expensive efforts to rejuvenate Aurora and the opposition it stirred-up among the locals. Thankfully this turns out not to be the case: while Lennon does borrow from external events the basic blueprint for Happyland, almost every element of the narrative is possessed by a headlong, reckless and forceful trajectory ratcheted up to such a degree that you cannot help but find yourself relishing like thunderclaps the high-octane comedic side-effects that result.

The trick with satire though is it that it is always hard to know where to stand, hard to gain a vantage point since unchecked invective tends to divide any sense of unequivocal morality across a multiplicity of motivations, viewpoints and actions and  this effect in turn provides the tragic force to satirical perspective. In short, satire does not generally abide any of its subjects retaining a shred of merit once it has had its way with them.

Happy’s motivations for transforming a small town – called Equinox – into “her Vatican, her Salt Lake, her Jerusalem” are not entirely clear but they appear to stem, at least in part, from an ongoing battle to strike a decisive blow against the demons of an abusive childhood. Happy was raised by her domineering Aunt Missy and treated as illegitimate: an outcast and an object of fun by Missy’s own children. Missy does her very best to drain Happy of all ambition, to submit to a set of limited choices, to  force her to learn her place but in the end fails to recognize that Happy’s talent and ambition far exceed, indeed are enhanced by, Missy’s efforts to belittle her. Happy’s plans for Equinox while complicated by her megalomania and bombast have to do with teaching poor white folks the art of living: the work of living should itself be one enormous effort to transform the imaginary into the real, in this case changing Equinox into a type of Disneyesque master-planned village.

Happy represents a kind of new-wave feminist who is not so much sworn to destroy underlying power structures that discriminate against her sex but rather is more interested in bending the latter to her own designs. The college librarian, Ruth Spinks, is also a feminist albeit one who came of age in the 1960s. Ruth immediately joins other townsfolk and students in opposing Happy’s plans for Equinox, seeing them as a bare-faced power grab and a type of revisionism that will eventually consign to the dustbin of  history the town’s founding event: the massacre of a Native American tribe that had been living locally. Added to this is the all-female student body radicalized and incensed at the College for initially prohibiting the visit of a famous lesbian orator by the name of Sally Streit. While for the most part opposing Happy the students share her hunger for control and – in Ruth’s eyes – are willing to make a fetish of the spirit of feminism to get it. While the novel is animated by half a dozen related subplots the critical battle lines are those drawn between Ruth and Happy for what might be called the soul of Equinox if this were not an out-and-out satire. Happy eventually records a victory of sorts:

Happy folded her arms and savored the moment. Her weapon slapped away, sapped of her power, Ruth assumed at last the slack jowls, the glassy eyes, of the small town spinster librarian that she was. Her cheeks pinked, then turned livid, revealing the spots and scars of a mediocre life.

Unsparing and even brutal passages like this are not uncommon but then the lifeblood of satire is unchecked invective just as much as it is a kind of homeless, misplaced moral center. Even the brief moments of happiness that people rely on in an otherwise bewildering journey from cradle to grave are snatched away. We feel there is a lesson here somewhere but who the teacher is and what exactly the point might be never become clear. While Happy is obviously in the book’s satiric crosshairs at the outset, as the novel progresses one cannot help but wonder if author joined the Happy bandwagon somewhere along the way – yet another satiric side-effect. Nevertheless, a satire cannot be indicted for being a satire and any minor qualms are forgotten amidst the laughter.