Thursday, June 20, 2024

Tim O’Brien, known for his powerful Vietnam books, returns with ‘America Fantastica’

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America has been infected by “mythomania,” also known as “the lying disease,” which injects new but dangerous life into our reality. People can claim anything is true and the word spreads, believed by more than you can imagine.

Tim O’Brien is best known for his books about Vietnam, National Book Award-winner “Going After Cacciato” and the spare but unforgettable “The Things They Carried.” But his first novel in two decades, “America Fantastica,” is a rollicking road trip and wild satire that will surprise people who know him from those books.

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In the novel, the spread of dishonesty and delusion is helped along by a kind of Johnny Appleseed of deceit: Boyd Halverston, whose lies have already ruined his life, robs a bank and kidnaps the teller, the motormouthed proselytizer Angie Bing. Their journey includes deadly violence, the unmasking of their pursuers and possibly some redemption.

In a recent video interview, O’Brien confessed the book and his damaged, occasionally deranged, characters surprised even him.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q. You’ve talked about how you first thought of the book two decades ago. You haven’t written a novel in all those years. What brought you back to it?

Boyd and Angie. I wrote 18 or 20 pages and then dropped it because I had two young children and decided I was going to be a good father, or at least try. I couldn’t do it if I’m getting up in the middle of the night to write. And you can’t be a good father if even when you’re wide awake and sitting at the dinner table, you’re thinking about these make-believe characters instead of your own kid. So I quit.

But the characters kept yapping at me. Boyd is a compulsive liar. I was interested in what made him this way. And what made Angie this devout Pentecostal with all these less-than-pious exceptions, like numerous fiancés. They seemed reflections of the world through the Trump years and through COVID.

Also, I was curious about conspiracy theorists. Did they really believe it or are they just lying? Or is it a combination of the two? Did Trump lie when he said he won the election or did he really believe it?

Q. The book is populated with wild and crazy characters. Who surprised you the most? 

I was more surprised by the background characters. I became those people as I wrote them in a way I never have before. I particularly felt that when I was writing the dialogue. It was fun, but I felt I was living on a cliff edge the whole time.

At one point Randy [Angie’s first fiancé, who is both stupid and violent] says, “Why does everybody underestimate me? Except me.” That’s not my voice. That’s him, he’s this doofus but he’s dangerous. I didn’t know that when I started writing, he was just a boyfriend chasing after Angie, but he became more and more part of my life. I kept getting an evil version of Matthew McConaughey in my head, a lean cowboy sort, but absolutely amoral – he doesn’t know what morality is so he can’t be immoral.

Maybe I was just watching too much Fox New Channel — I try putting myself on a diet of once every seven years or so, but it doesn’t work because I’m curious about these people.

Q. After spending time inhabiting these characters, what did you learn about yourself?

I learned that I’m not just Tim O’Brien; there are aspects of my personality that were foreign to me. I felt like a stranger when I was writing these voices. That kind of surprise didn’t happen with my Vietnam books where I was working so much on memory of personal experience and the language of Vietnam and of the military. This was different.

Q. The rich are so greedy and willing to commit crimes that it feels like a parody, but real life is not that far removed from this kind of entitlement and self-indulgence. How did you intend them to be seen?

It was definitely satire.

I’m a big fan of Jonathan Swift – in college, I read “A Modest Proposal,” in which Swift posits the cure for famine is to eat our children. And I liked Mark Twain’s later writing when he’s cynical and fed up with society and pious hypocrisy. I was hoping I could bear witness to what’s happening in this country through a book that’s at least partly funny. I mean, I hope it’s at least partly funny. I have a perverse sense of humor.

Laughter can be a revenge of sorts. You can’t speak rationally to these conspiracy people. It is impossible to speak rationally to the half of the country that believes Trump won that election. And you can’t argue them out of it. So why not laugh at them? Or at all of us, I suppose.

Q. Do you let the characters go where they go at the end, or do you try to find an ending that each deserves?

The characters make their destinies. As I’m typing, one sentence leads to the next and that sentence to the next and so on. They’ve made their own future by what they’ve done in the sentence before or the paragraph before. Throughout the whole novel, Angie is saying, more or less, “I’m a missionary. I want to save souls.” So I couldn’t have her go back on that at the end; she goes with who she thought needed her the most, which made a perverse sense to me.

Q. The early days of COVID, which come at the end of the book, altered so many people’s plans and destinies. How did you factor that into which characters survived it and which did not?? 

I wanted to make sure that both contagions in the book — the real one, COVID, and the one I made up, mythomania, had lethal consequences. The epidemic of lying kills and kills the human spirit and constitutional democracy. You betray yourself and others when you lie. So I wanted everyone to face consequences for their actions.

Q. You’ve said this is your last novel. Why?

I’ve got really bad carpal tunnel – my left hand is either numb or hurts and I can’t hit the right keys anymore. Writing another novel seems virtually impossible. There’s great joy that comes from a paragraph or a sentence that has some grace and maybe emotion to it but they’re infrequent. And I’m 77 years old now and I’ve got only so many years left, maybe not a lot, since I’m a smoker, so I don’t want to deal with the frustrations of it all. I want to spend as much time with my sons as I can.

On the other hand, my wife came home a week ago and said her friend said her mother, who was over 80, came out of the shower naked and there was a total stranger sleeping in her bed. And I just started thinking, “What an opening to a novel.” And I started wondering who this character would be – is it a long lost love, is it a stranger? And what happens after that?

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