All the Happiness You Deserve
By Michael Piafsky
Prospect Park Books
Reviewed by Karl Wolff
Spanning decades and criss-crossing the continent, All the Happiness You Deserve by Michael Piafsky is a modern-day bildungsroman. The novel follows the life story of Scott, a kid growing up in the Midwest. Scott graduates high school, goes to college, gets married … and divorced, has children and grandchildren, and then the novel ends with him in the twilight of old age. While coming-of-age novels are hardly rare, All the Happiness You Deserve takes some stylistic and narrative risks, making it stand out among a crowded pack. Piafsky uses Tarot cards as a narrative device, sometimes obliquely or explicitly commenting on the scene. He also uses second-person as the novel’s perspective. The Tarot cards as plot commentary works well, the second-person narration, not so much.
Scott’s story spans American history and Piafsky expertly weaves the ups and downs one encounters in a long life. Early on he faces a death in his immediate family and the slow-burning fragmentation of his parent’s divorce. (I’m being vague on purpose, since this book offers rare pleasures to the reader when Scott encounters either bliss or disaster.) Due to bad luck or his own incompetence, Scott becomes a sad sack figure. He remains oblivious as life events surprise him. Year after year, he can’t comprehend the calamitous after-effects of his decisions. One specific passage, when Scott is settled into the low-key life in his wife’s small home-town, stands out in its narrative power. Never a fervent believer, Scott ends up spending an occasional afternoon in a nearby church. Piafsky displays his descriptive skills when he describes, through Scott’s eyes, the changing light through the stained glass windows. My summary doesn’t do it justice. It would be like saying, “Marcel Proust was a gossip and a fan of pastries.”
The only part that didn’t work for me was the second-person narration. More than anything, it proved a distraction. With writing this good and a story this compelling, the uncommon second-person tripped me up. If the novel chose a more traditional narrative perspective, either first-person or third-person, I would have given it a higher score. Second-person simply isn’t for everybody. It is a creative gamble that unfortunately didn’t pay off. If you can get around the second-person narration, I would still highly recommend All the Happiness You Deserve. Piafsky writes in such a way that you can feel the passage of time and the accumulation of life events, memories, regrets, and sorrow. And like Muscle Cars by Stephen Eoannou, it is a solemn meditation on American masculinity.
Out of 10/8.5