"America, Fantastica" | Reviewed by William Winkler
Minnesota native Tim O’Brien earned a BA in Political Science in 1968 and soon thereafter was drafted into the US Army and sent to Viet Nam, where he served as an infantry sergeant. Shortly after his return from Viet Nam he published his first book, a memoir titled “If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home.” The book received multiple accolades. Nearly two decades later he published another book based on his wartime experiences, “The Things They Carried,” a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
O’Brien’s latest work, a novel titled “America Fantastica,” is set in contemporary America. Its central theme is that nothing is as it seems to be, be it personal identities, items in the news, or motivations.
The protagonist is Boyd Halverson, a middle-aged, former highly regarded journalist who has allowed his life to devolve into divorce, alcoholism, and a dead-end career as the manager of a JCPenney store in a dying northern California town. On a whim Halverson decides to alter the course of his life and, leaving a Saturday morning Kiwanis Club brunch, walks across the street and holds up the town’s only bank. The bank’s sole teller, the diminutive Angie Bing, accompanies Halverson as he flees with a bagful of cash.
The rest of the narrative introduces the reader to a cast of characters, most of them unsavory in their own ways, many of whom meet unpleasant ends. All of them have reasons to pursue Halverson, whose name may not really be Halverson.
Interspersed with the story of Halverson’s flight are glimpses into the behavior of so-called “mythomaniacs,” Q-Anon-like characters who skillfully utilize social media to spread falsehoods that echo through talk radio and online chat rooms until they become accepted as fact and acted upon in increasingly appalling ways.
O’Brien’s novel, which he says will be his last, is a moderately entertaining depiction of the current state of facts and reality in our culture. Readers who recognize this point of view early on their journey through the book will find it amusing. Others may find it alarming, a look into a future that seems to be growing more realistic.