Calvin Bledsoe is a blogger for the pellet stove industry who lives in the fictional town of Congress, Maine, in Brock Clarke’s seventh novel. But it’s only by leaving that life to travel Europe and embark on a journey of self-discovery that he’ll be able to answer the titular question in Clarke’s “Who Are You, Calvin Bledsoe?”

The story gets started after Calvin’s mother, Nola, a renowned scholar and author of a famous book about 16th-century French theologian John Calvin, is pronounced dead after a fiery crash. Her vehicle was incinerated when her car was struck by a train loaded with propane tanks.

At his mother’s graveside service, Calvin is approached by a stranger who, in a jarring introduction, tells him, “Pulverized by a train! A wonderful way to die. Although poor Nola probably didn’t think so.” The mysterious mourner introduces herself as Calvin’s Aunt Beatrice, quite a surprise for Calvin, who didn’t even know he had an aunt. His surprise is compounded when Beatrice goes on to say that she is his mother’s twin sister.

This encounter sets the stage for a wild adventure in which Clarke – chair of the English Department at Bowdoin College and an accomplished short story writer and essayist – packs quirky characters, tangled relationships and narrative twists. Ostensibly an expansive European travel novel, “Who Are You, Calvin Bledsoe?” is actually an interior exploration into Calvin’s sense of self, with Aunt Beatrice serving as guide on both his physical and emotional journeys.

Their trip begins when Beatrice invites Calvin to travel with her to Stockholm. Calvin declines, citing other obligations and practical barriers: He doesn’t have a ticket or his passport. Beatrice magically produces both, but Calvin remains unwilling to go. After agreeing to drive Beatrice from Maine to Logan airport in Boston, Calvin is slowly but inexorably persuaded to hop on the plane. Clarke’s narrative alchemy creates such a natural, seemingly logical flow, the highly improbable events that lead Calvin to board the plane require no suspension of disbelief.

Calvin’s journey through Europe is dizzying and marked by accelerating outlandishness. He meets a cousin he didn’t know he had (who turns out to be a small-animal pornographer). He steals a large and important historical object, and has a very close encounter with an Interpol agent while on a night train speeding across Germany. On top of this, Calvin is kidnapped. And that’s not all: Clarke has even bigger surprises in store for the reader.

Clarke has a distinctive, energetic voice and a razor sharp wit. He weaves a clever comic tale that glitters with surprises throughout, often leaving the reader to wonder in amazement: wait, what? And it’s impossible to read “Who Are You, Calvin Bledsoe?” without hearing an echo of another book you just may have heard of – “Divine Comedy,” in which a guide named Beatrice helped a certain Dante Aligheri navigate his journey.

Clarke uses his storyline as a platform to consider larger issues about relationships, spirituality and self-awareness. In the course of the novel, Calvin Bledsoe explores the relationship between his parents, his relationship with his mother, and the “suddenly family” relationships with his newly discovered aunt and cousin.

And he uses deeply flawed characters to advance the plot. In spite of their humor and apparently benign eccentricities, most have demonstrated perfidy in relationships with those closest to them. Despite all of Beatrice’s insights, for instance, she is an accomplished liar and thief who is being pursued by law enforcement.

These flawed, vulnerable characters fuel Calvin’s search for meaning in a world that often leaves him confused and bewildered. As we leave him, though, Calvin has gained many new insights and is preparing to embark on new adventures.

Dave Canarie is an attorney who lives in South Portland and a faculty member at USM.

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