Benjamin Harnett’s trippy, ambitious debut novel, THE HAPPY VALLEY, begins with the familiar notes of a nostalgic coming-of-age story. Its unnamed, middle-aged narrator looks back on his childhood in an idyllic small town—famous for having been visited by President Millard Fillmore—in Upstate New York in the 1990s, and his friendship with a girl, June, who becomes his first love and lifelong preoccupation. June becomes part of the narrator’s circle of friends, joining them in sessions of “The Game,” a fantasy role-playing game that began as Dungeons & Dragons but which the kids have reconstructed into their own unique creation. For a time, the story ambles nimbly through time-honored elements of childhood adventure fiction—the narrator’s burgeoning devotion to June amid pinpricks of romantic jealousy; their investigation of a mysterious janitor, Clyde Duane, and his involvement with a secret society. Soon, however, the novel pulls back to reveal a more expansive, infinitely stranger canvas, vaulting from the past to a wild, surreal future in which a post-apocalyptic America is beginning to piece itself back together in the wake of catastrophic upheaval. June has disappeared from the narrator’s life, leaving him to sift through fragments of past and present in his attempt to uncover the truth.
Harnett’s tale is steeped in fond remembrance of childhood games, and reading THE HAPPY VALLEY is not unlike the experience of opening a D&D game box. In a charming—and unabashedly self-indulgent—bit of metafictional world-building rarely attempted outside of fantasy adventure series, the novel includes a map of the Harmony Valley area, children’s book-style illustrations, and an appendix featuring a historical timeline, a reading group guide with discussion prompts (“Does this novel have a central message about the way we order our life?”), and even a Spotify playlist with songs evoking the feel of the story. These playful, mischievous notes reflect how the novel itself cuts the aching solemnity of its melancholic atmosphere with childlike naiveté, wry self-awareness, and a refusal to take itself too seriously.
Dense with historical and cultural references and perceptive insights into human nature on both an individual and societal scale, Benjamin Harnett’s THE HAPPY VALLEY is a poetic, delightfully inventive work of modern mythmaking.
~Edward Sung for IndieReader