America Fantastica

Image of America Fantastica: A Novel
Release Date: 
October 24, 2023
Mariner Books
Reviewed by: 

“O’Brien invites a long-term commitment to his ‘fantastica’ nation, and with it, acceptance that lying in public is now accepted, expected, even mandated.”

Name your favorite road-trip book. Start with Huckleberry Finn maybe, or Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, then add Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, something by Bill Bryson perhaps, Blue Highways of course, and Kerouac’s On the Road. Blend lightly, add ice and a squeeze of lime, and maybe salt the rim of the glass: There you are. That’s the mix that Tim O’Brien’s America Fantastica begins from, as Boyd Halvorson decides he’s had enough of his life as a JCPenney manager. It’s time for a change. “Boyd would rob the bank on Sunday, leave a false trail into Mexico, then head home to attend to things he should have attended to long ago.”

Boyd’s skills with lies are outstanding—and so they should be, considering that the measure of his work as a journalist is how many retweets and other social media mentions he can garner for each surprising assertion. Did Lincoln really exist? (If he didn’t, was there a real Emancipation Proclamation or not?) Who’s nuking the blue-collar cities? What nefarious doings emerge from the “liberal cabal” this week? Boyd crafts these strands of what O’Brien calls “mythomania” as the most creative and well-paid aspects of his job.

When he robs the local bank (collecting only a few thousand more than if he’d simply cleaned out his own account there), he takes the diminutive teller hostage. Angie Bing, red-headed and single, doesn’t seem to mind. It turns out that she needs to be needed, and Boyd’s obvious bad-boy lifestyle is ripe for her God-fearing missionary work. She’s going to teach him to pray for forgiveness even if it means she’s got to “talk at him” for hours on end, for days on end. And somehow he can’t get away from her.

Their growing connection happens across the dailiness of sharing everything, although with clothes on. Despite Angie’s wishes, Boyd doesn’t have a crush on her, never did, and maybe never will. While they stumble from one crime to another in an effort to reach someone Boyd wants to punish, teams determined to stop them take position behind them on that endless road trip: bank owners, violent criminals, an ex-wife, a former father-in-law, even a real police officer. Weaving, winding, and ducking, Boyd and Angie slip out of every net.

After all, Boyd’s career of lying and crafting fables is totally American: “By the late summer of 2019, in the nation’s capital, White House limousines and Senate hearing rooms had become unpleasant places. To smell a rat or to smell something fishy were now literal responses to an avalanche of oratorical whippers issued by occupants of high, medium, and low office. . . .  Bullyism skyrocketed. Marriages collapsed. Prayer groups turned violent.”

Oh, did we not mention that this is a road trip that mirrors America’s political collapse? Well, that would be just one more thing Boyd’s willing to lie about—in fact, he can’t really tell the truth, and Angie’s persistent focused effort to get to the root of why he’s gone off the rails, why he’s seeking revenge, seems long-term fruitless. So does her half-hearted effort to seduce him. Whoever heard of an attractive hostage not being romanced somehow?

If you’ve read, re-read, and carried around a worn copy of any one or two of those on-the-road books, prepare to embrace the 2023 equivalent, in more than 400 pages of mistakes, wrong turns, and comebacks (including that of Timothy McVeigh, rumored to work as a distributor of guaranteed inorganic fruits and vegetables). O’Brien invites a long-term commitment to his “fantastica” nation, and with it, acceptance that lying in public is now accepted, expected, even mandated. Are you up to this? Angie Bing, pushing at Boyd to find God, thinks you ought to be.