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America Fantastica


America Fantastica

In 2002, National Book Award winner Tim O’Brien published the novel JULY, JULY. Since that time, save for 2020’s nonfiction title, DAD’S MAYBE BOOK, he’s been silent on the page. With the arrival of AMERICA FANTASTICA, a simultaneously raucous and surprisingly empathetic novel whose characters “gave me the sensation of being nine months pregnant --- give birth or explode,” he’s returned to fiction. At this point in America’s cultural and political life, the appropriate response to a book this sharp and sensitive is simply to express one’s gratitude that he’s back.

If Elmore Leonard had collaborated with the Coen brothers to produce a screenplay, the result might loosely resemble AMERICA FANTASTICA. Beginning with a bank robbery in a tiny Northern California town in August 2019, it wends its way across large swaths of the United States for a year as life rolls on, its inhabitants heedless of the rupture that’s about to arrive in the early months of 2020.

O’Brien’s improbable thief is Boyd Halverson, once an esteemed investigative reporter for a Los Angeles newspaper, who now manages the JCPenney store in Fulda, California (with a population of around 3,500). Boyd is a serial fabulist, whose past is filled with as many falsehoods as George Santos’ resumé. Somewhere around age 50, he decides to rob the town’s only bank “because he could think of nothing better to do.” As O’Brien summarizes it:

"If Elmore Leonard had collaborated with the Coen brothers to produce a screenplay, the result might loosely resemble AMERICA FANTASTICA."

“With no real future, and with a past he cared not to dwell on, Boyd had nothing much to lose. Or, more precisely, nothing left to be. He was done hiding from the world. Dishonor was one thing --- a terrible thing --- but he’d paid for it with a divorce and a scuttled career and the loss of all appetite for the future. That seemed penalty enough.”

Yielding to that impulse, Boyd makes off with $81,000 and an only partially unwilling hostage, bank teller Angie Bing. She’s a tiny, attractive 30-year-old redhead and Pentecostal Christian with a voice that’s “puckish and indefatigable and irritatingly penetrative.” Rejecting his offer of early freedom, throughout their extended journey she peppers Boyd with well-meaning advice that’s intended to save his life as much as his soul.

It turns out that Boyd unwittingly has selected America’s best bank to pilfer. Its top management, husband and wife Douglas and Lois Cutterby, have been embezzling its funds for years, and their defalcations prevent them from revealing the theft to authorities. That doesn’t mean, though, that they and an assortment of others don’t want to get their hands on Boyd and Angie.

The pursuers include Angie’s boyfriend, Randy Zapf, “an electrician with burglary experience”; Toby Van Der Kellen, Fulda’s only real cop (and a crooked one, to boot); and Henry Speck, great-nephew of the real-life 1960s serial killer, Richard Speck, who’s dispatched by the husband of Boyd’s ex-wife, Evelyn, to ensure that Boyd ceases his periodic contact with her. Boyd, in turn, has his own plan for revenge against his former father-in-law, Jim Dooney, chairman emeritus of a multinational corporation, who engineered his professional downfall.

It’s only possible to hint at all the plot twists on this road trip in vehicles as various as a secondhand 2001 Pleasure-Way camper and a Ferrari 812 Superfast. Among the novel’s settings are a mansion on the aptly named Lake Larceny in frigid Bemidji, Minnesota, and a bungalow in Santa Monica, California. And there are detours into Boyd’s past that illuminate some of the reasons for his inability to face the truth about himself.

But apart from all the madcap antics of his characters, O’Brien’s crime caper allows him to navigate the porous boundary between truth and falsehood in contemporary American life. It’s a dichotomy that has preoccupied him since he wrote THE THINGS THEY CARRIED, where he observed, “A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.” That throughline ran through his novel IN THE LAKE OF THE WOODS, in which a rising political star watches his career implode after his involvement in the Vietnam War’s My Lai massacre is exposed. He’s enmeshed in a mystery closer to home when his wife vanishes from the cottage where they’ve retreated following his election defeat.

In the third year of the Trump administration, O’Brien’s America is a country in the grip of a fever dream of lying, “a communicable disease rolling across America like Noah’s killer flood,” only a few months before the arrival of a true infectious disease --- the COVID-19 pandemic. His name for this affliction is “mythomania,” and he imagines a collection of cells he calls “Truth Teller Seeds” (Boyd is AWOL from his own hometown group), responsible for pumping increasingly outrageous toxic lies into the nation’s bloodstream.

As O’Brien acknowledged in a recent interview, “‘Commentary’ is a fiction writer’s death sentence. Story is everything.” Happily, he takes his own advice to heart. As his roguish, frequently hapless characters race toward their respective destinies, the novel is suffused with a pulsating energy and plenty of humor amid a fair helping of pathos. Admitting that he loves all these characters, “especially the bank robbers and murderers and liars in public places --- just as a parent loves a child despite the child’s sins and imperfections,” O’Brien nonetheless makes sure that his many colorful creations eventually get their just desserts.

As O’Brien, who celebrated his 77th birthday last month, recognized in DAD’S MAYBE BOOK, if he hasn’t reached the end of his literary career, he’s close. While it’s natural to hope that AMERICA FANTASTICA signals a late-in-life burst of creativity, if it turns out to be his final novel, it will be a treasured gift to anyone who has cherished his work.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on November 3, 2023

America Fantastica
by Tim O’Brien

  • Publication Date: October 24, 2023
  • Genres: Fiction, Satire
  • Hardcover: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books
  • ISBN-10: 0063318504
  • ISBN-13: 9780063318502