AMERICA FANTASTICA, by Tim O’Brien
When scientists take a core sample of fiction from the post-Trump era, they will discover American novelists struggling to unpack the political and social repercussions of his reign. Just as historians work to document the facts of the last 10 years, so, too, do novelists try to reveal their meaning. Tim O’Brien’s diagnosis of what ails America in 2023 is “mythomania,” which he defines as an epidemic of lying that swept our nation during the Trump presidency, infecting man and, he writes, bird alike.
In “America Fantastica,”a manic road-trip-meets-crime-spree novel, O’Brien — the award-winning author of “The Things They Carried”and “Going After Cacciato”— speaks through an omniscient narrator, one who regularly interrupts the story to describe the spread of this so-called disease:
Centered on the exploits of Boyd Halverson (not his real name), an investigative reporter turned J.C. Penney manager slash serial liar, the novel begins with his robbing a bank in Fulda, Calif., and taking the teller, Angie Bing, hostage. What follows is a cross-country escapade, from Texas to Minnesota, filled with colorful characters who include Boyd’s ex-wife, her new C.E.O. husband, her scheming billionaire father, the married owners of the bank in question (who don’t report the robbery because they’re too busy robbing the bank themselves) and Angie’s homicidal, reality-challenged fiancé, who sets off in pursuit.
It is a tall tale that reads like flyover state Elmore Leonard. And if O’Brien had just set out to write a comic misadventure, the book would certainly pass muster as entertainment. But by adding a veneer of topicality, O’Brien aims to turn his characters into case studies for a nation’s moral failure. In doing so, he burdens the book with the weight of cranky satire.
In O’Brien’s America, citizens simply woke up one morning and decided to lie. All the people, all the time. They know what the truth is. They just choose not to tell it. While this may explain a certain opportunistic grifter class, it skirts the psychological struggle facing ordinary Americans, who deny science and embrace conspiracy theories as a way to avoid painful, personal disappointments.
O’Brien’s book itself has a narrative credibility problem. The Boyd Halverson we meet in the opening chapter is a man whose actions are rooted in the real world. On the run, he takes Angie to Mexico, then to his hometown, Santa Monica, where he hunts down his ex-wife, hoping to reconcile. When that fails, he packs Angie (now somehow in love with him) into his car and drives to Minnesota in pursuit of the father-in-law who destroyed his marriage.
Along the way, we learn from ancillary characters that Boyd is famous in internet circles as the “ur-liar of liars” and “Pharaoh of Fantasy” — a man who fabricated his past and has spent his post-divorce years sowing political untruths online. But we never meet that Boyd. The man we follow is a humbled alcoholic in the middle of a very real mental breakdown, one who struggles to ground himself and confront the failures of his past.
In other words, the character described and the one O’Brien has written don’t feel like the same man. It is only in the end that we get a clearer understanding of Boyd’s complex relationship to the truth, and explore the nuance of what might make an otherwise honest man devote his life to lies. But without the proper setup, the reveal has little impact.
It doesn’t help that O’Brien has chosen to examine American untruth by writing a crime novel, a genre that is, by definition, filled with liars, no matter when it’s set. “America Fantastica” is a catalog of thieves and con men, each dumber than the next but convinced that they alone are the smartest person in the room. And while that may describe the never-ending Trump circus, by using such a broad brush to paint the nation, O’Brien has created a novel that reads more like a cartoon.
AMERICA FANTASTICA | By Tim O’Brien | Mariner Books | 464 pp. | $32