Tim O’Brien’s Latest Novel Embraces Political Cynicism

American Fantastica is Tim O’Brien’s first novel in two decades. For years he wrote political satires raging against the American war machine, but his latest novel abandons the moral vision of his earlier works and strikes a pessimistic note.

Novelist Tim O'Brien signing books at Barnes & Noble on October 14, 2019, in New York City. (Gary Gershoff / Getty Images)

America Fantastica is Tim O’Brien’s only novel to take place in a post-9/11 world.

Sent off to war by his hometown draft board in 1969, the young O’Brien solidified his literary celebrity within the decade, establishing himself in short order as the most influential Vietnam War writer in the United States. He maintained this posture for the remainder of the century, with a string of widely read and critically acclaimed books that nearly all professed his abiding shame at having participated, even involuntarily, in something as unforgivable as an American war.

But then, right around the turn of the century, he stopped writing fiction. He seemed to abandon his vocation as a novelist at precisely the moment my generation’s war began. America Fantastica therefore marks a return to form. As all the promotional materials make sure to mention, it is O’Brien’s first novel in over twenty years.

As a young writer, O’Brien had envisioned for himself a grand, even utopian, literary agenda. He admits as much in Dad’s Maybe Book, a book-length retrospective essay released in 2019. “Back in 1968 and 1969, when Vietnam collided with my life,” he writes, “I yearned for revenge against the cheerleaders and celebrators of war. Somehow, I imagined, I would strike back with sentences, make the monsters squirm in shame.” Transformed by his experience of war, the young O’Brien meant to deliver a kind of bare-knuckled moral education to the nation that sent him there. For the next thirty years that’s what he did, serving up big-thinking and morally uncompromising stories that were challenging, disruptive, occasionally a little didactic, but never mealymouthed, never shy.

For a while, at least, it seemed history might reward his ambition. If you attended high school in the United States at any time since the mid-’90s, you were probably assigned O’Brien’s The Things They Carried (1990), a cerebral collection of Vietnam War stories that probes the nature of truth in wartime. For decades now, hundreds of thousands of American readers have encountered O’Brien’s most didactic work at the ideal age for moral education. In the morning, they stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, and later they march down the hall to an English class where they discuss the agonies of Alpha Company and the shame of a narrator named Tim.

I participated in this pedagogical ritual myself. In 2006 or 2007, when George W. Bush was president, and Iraq registered in the popular imagination as a dusty desert planet from which people like me, people I knew, periodically returned home broken in body and mind. Saddam Hussein was dead, or underground, but still one could observe his visage on urinal cakes in the cafés and taverns of my hometown; flags flew from every highway overpass; there was a military parade each year for the Fourth of July. We all read Tim O’Brien in school.

We grew up. Most of us went to college but some of us went to the wars. Meanwhile, O’Brien’s celebrity had never burned brighter. The morally wounded and syntactically spare veteran-writer, cut in the style of Tim O’Brien, became a bonafide publishing archetype in the “war on terror” era. The same society that had once sent O’Brien to war now conscripted him again, this time as a war-whisperer, a poet laureate of soldierly stoicism. His blurb became precious currency for serious American novels with pictures of desert tanks on their covers.

Never mind that O’Brien was arguably the most unflinchingly antiwar writer of his generation, a lifelong antagonist of the kind of patriotic pageantry that now surrounded his most famous book, a moral author who as a young ex-soldier found his inspiration in people like Erich Maria Remarque, Wilfred Owen, or the early Ezra Pound. In those feverish years after 9/11, neither the “celebrators of war” nor the reading masses could understand him. It was as if everyone had read a different book, a book they’d made up themselves, and decided to call it The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien.

The bleak irony of these circumstances recalls some of O’Brien’s angrier satires. Still, between July, July in 2002 and Dad’s Maybe Book in 2019, the man himself stayed silent. Well, not silent — he sometimes went on TV or the radio, even during those early years, and I can remember his gravelly duck-call voice trembling in anger at whatever soft-handed idiot sat opposite him pounding the drums of war. But no new books. And can you blame him?

Now, at last, we have another O’Brien novel. It’s his longest by a hundred pages or so, it’s zanily ambitious, and, more than any earlier work, it purports to wear its politics on its sleeve. It’s also, I’m sad to say, something of a disappointment.

Make Sure Something Happens

America Fantastica is a clown-car of schemers and manipulators and broken self-deluded oddballs. We have Angie Bing, who in addition to being short, squeaky, and a bank teller is also a Pentacostal Christian, though it’s not clear what that means. What is clear is that she’s starved for love and apparently desperate to marry.

We have the fabulist and scamp Boyd Halverson, who sets the novel in motion by robbing a bank because he is bored. We have Angie’s fiancé, Randy Zapf, a relentless destroyer of all things, not unlike Flannery O’Conner’s Misfit, if the Misfit had the peculiar habit of driving a muscle car using only his thumbs (the thumb-driving comes up a lot in America Fantastica; don’t ask me why). We have a cop, I think his name is Toby, who has an affair with Lois, a compulsive gambler and the co-owner of the bank Boyd robbed.

Then we have Dooney, a billionaire who seems at times to ventriloquize Donald Trump, but who is gay and also, I think, a Minnesotan. We have Dooney’s daughter, Evelyn, who used to be married to Boyd but now is married to the man who took over the Dooney business empire when Dooney retired. Evelyn’s new husband is a real weirdo — at one point he fires a whole professional baseball team and fields himself, solo, against the Philadelphia Phillies — but I have to admit I don’t recall anything else about the fellow, not even his name.

Outwardly, America Fantastica appears to be a fun book, a romp. This is sleight of hand. In truth, never before has O’Brien demanded so much from his reader.

At one point in Dad’s Maybe Book, O’Brien offers the advice that if you’re going to tell a story, make sure something happens in it. In America Fantastica, he drives this piece of advice until the wheels come off — which they do, relatively early in the novel. The world of American Fantastica is a world in which nothing pays off, where no story arrives at its conclusion, where every bit of narrative energy, no matter how earnestly mustered, only winds up captured, diverted, pinballed around in some great chaotic machine until it finally peters out.

This may strike you as a passable way to depict the darkly madcap years of the late Trump administration, to which I say fair enough. Certainly this is O’Brien’s intention. The novel’s action takes place, you’ll notice, between 2019 and 2020, and America Fantastica is indeed recognizable as a funhouse-mirror reflection of the real-life America of those years, when deception and contagion sometimes felt irreversibly conjoined.

For example, O’Brien has great fun fashioning a frame for the novel out of “mythomania” — a disease that makes people lie — which spreads throughout the country like, well, an endemic virus. It’s a little blunt as a literary device, sure, but it works, at least until the arrival of real COVID near the end of the book, at which point things get pretty confused. But by then the coherence of the framing device hardly matters. The story itself has long since spiraled out of control.

Cynical Laughter

If you’re a Tim O’Brien fan, you’ll know that laughter has a kind of alarm-bell quality in his fiction. Not humor — laughter itself. It emanates from darkened landscapes in Quảng Ngãi and Grand Marais; it rings in the skulls of the terrified and ashamed; it rises like bile in the quaking throats of soldiers who must keep silent to stay alive.

To laugh in one of O’Brien’s worlds is almost never a relief. Where there is laughter there tends also to be hurt, or grief, or terror — sometimes all three — bouncing around inside a brain that can’t get its bearings enough to work out what’s false and what’s true.

All this resonates uneasily with the fact that O’Brien is a seriously funny writer. I challenge you to read any of his novels (except maybe In the Lake of the Woods [1994]) and not crack a smile at least once. America Fantastica, in particular, is full of one-liners and set pieces and clever flourishes befitting a stage magician. Not all the gags land, but still it’s clear that America Fantastica is O’Brien’s sincerest attempt at a straightforwardly comic novel since 1998’s Tomcat in Love, to which it bears a family resemblance.

Yet no other book of O’Brien’s has ultimately left me feeling quite so morose, so downright sad, as this one. I’ve ruminated on my reaction for weeks now, grasping for what it is about Angie Bing and her boisterous cohort that bums me out so damned much. I haven’t reached a conclusion yet, but there is something I keep coming back to, and that something is a garden hoe.

Early on in America Fantastica, in a sudden act of depraved violence that O’Brien uncharacteristically plays for laughs, Randy Zapf commits a double murder on the side of a highway using a garden hoe. The thumb-driving Misfit brings it down again and again against the skulls of two men we’ve spent the previous several chapters getting to know — “a good fast hoeing . . . face mostly, a bunch of other places.” He says to one man, “You’re dead,” and to the other, “You’re deader,” then drives away eating Cheetos out of the bag. At no point does the experience trouble Randy Zapf at all.

Curiously enough, this is not the first time a garden hoe has shown up at a key moment in an O’Brien novel. In In the Lake of the Woods, John Wade, a disgraced politician and witness to the My Lai massacre, returns obsessively to the memory of a noncombatant he killed during a moment of panic in Vietnam. The old man had “a wispy beard and wire glasses and what looked to be a rifle” — but of course it wasn’t a rifle, it was a hoe, and when it sailed through the air after the man was shot, John Wade suddenly realized the mistake he’d made. He brings the memory home with him. “In the ordinary hours after the war,” O’Brien writes, “in the babble of some dreary statehouse hearing, John Wade would sometimes look up to see the wooden hoe spinning like a baton in the morning sunlight.”

It is the juxtaposition of these two hoes, the one in John Wade’s head and the one in Randy Zapf’s hand, that bothers me, I think. I am unsettled that what in one story signals such innocence and vitality — the rustic tool of the gunned-down farmer — can in this newer story signal nothing except an opportunity to smash a few skulls for laughs.

If this were just one scene, I could probably look past it, but cartoonish violence of this kind persists throughout America Fantastica, picking up in comic intensity as the story drags on. Of course, O’Brien has given us violence laced with wit before, often to great effect. The best parts of Tomcat in Love, for example, have to do with an inept bombing plot and a mock crucifixion, and The Nuclear Age (1985) includes a somewhat slapstick account of the narrator flunking out of an armed revolutionary training program. But we’re not normally invited to laugh at people getting their heads caved in, like poor Cyrus and Carl on the side of that highway. (Or at people getting their guts blown out with a shotgun, for that matter, which is what happens to Toby and Lois a little later on.)

I could be wrong about this, but I don’t recall any Tim O’Brien book besides America Fantastica that encourages laughter in response to the death of a character. Laughing at death is something only other characters do — and not because death is funny, but because it is so awful that to observe or inflict it exceeds the mind’s capacity to comfort itself.

Has the famously pacific O’Brien become so resigned to his readers’ cynicism that he now regards murderous, war-like violence to be something that may amuse us, something we may delight in witnessing?

In Dad’s Maybe Book, O’Brien describes being onstage in a university auditorium, reading aloud from a story called “The Man I Killed.” The reading is “hard-going”; memories surface and O’Brien’s voice breaks — and when he’s finished a young man approaches, shakes his hand, and says the story convinced him to join the Marine Corps.

“This was not a singular occurrence,” O’Brien elaborates. “It has happened a dozen or so times over thirty years.” Each time the conversation leaves him despondent, feeling like a “dumb useless yo-yo.” “I’ll take a shower and smoke cigarettes and stare at CNN,” he writes. “And then finally surrender, as I must, to the space in which reader and writer brush past each other as strangers.”

I think about that line a lot. O’Brien, an author of uncommon courage and passion, an author I happen to love, surrendering. Surrendering to that abstract chasm between writer and reader, sure, but also — in a much realer sense — surrendering to us.

It’s clear that O’Brien conceives of America Fantastica as a kind of cultural intervention, and already newspaper interviewers have begun calling it his “most overtly political novel.” This reading is not entirely unfounded, but I struggle to read America Fantastica that way. Its marriage of violent melodrama and political allegory is too ironic for my taste; I can’t get that goddamned garden hoe out of my head; I can’t help but feel underestimated and betrayed by the novel’s blithe insensitivity, its disinterest in rectitude, the way it exerts itself, even in moments of horror and tragedy, to entertain. If America Fantastica is a political novel, it’s a political novel written from the knees. It makes no challenge.

What must Tim O’Brien think of us?