America Fantastica: Weird Road Trip, Satire, or Daily News?



America Fantastica (2023)

By Tim O’Brien

Mariner, 464 pages



Tim O’Brien insists that America Fantastica is the last novel he intends to write. If you only know his Vietnam War works such as The Things They Carried and Going After Cacciato this one will surprise you. It is a lampoon of contemporary America that draws comparisons to Jonathan Swift, though Carl Hiaasen might be a better analogy. It drew both praise and criticism, the latter because it’s often difficult to know if O’Brien is laughing with us or at us.


It rather depends on how sensitive you are, but any way you slice it, it would be hard to call this an optimistic work. Many of those who praise the novel argue that it’s a perfect put-down of our current era of fake news, racism, violence, Trumpism, and the loony right. Set in 2019, America Fantastica gives us anti-hero Boyd Halverson. He is one of life’s losers. His ex-wife Evelyn is the daughter of Trump stand-in Jim Dooney, an amoral and filthy rich egoist with more than few screws loose. For example, he owns a major league baseball team whose entire roster he fired and proceeded to play solo against the Phillies. (It didn’t go well!) Boyd holds serious grudges against Evelyn and her father, though he’s no pillar of the community himself. He manages a J C Penny’s store, but prior to that he was a “journalist” who specialized in increasingly bizarre disinformation campaigns he hoped would land him a position with Fox News.


Halverson snaps, figures he’s owed $300,000, walks into a Fulda, California bank and pulls a robbery. He has to settle for $81,000, which is all the bank had in cash. In the process, he takes teller Angie Bing hostage. She’s a diminutive redhead who claims to be a sincere Pentecostal Christian, though she’s also a motormouth, has an overactive libido, is a raging materialist, and has a boyfriend named Randy who is dumber than homemade sin and a homicidal sociopath without a conscience. (You can’t have something you can’t spell!) O’Brien calls him, “a piece of stupid wrapped up in cowboy clothes.”


Boyd and Angie are the mismatched principals of a non-great American road trip. There are hitmen, an heiress, ex-cons, Iraq War vets, rich SOBs, Covid deniers, and a parade of Angie lovers who might or might not be in the ex- category. What seems to be lacking are pursuing cops and there’s a reason or two for that as well. In other words, it’s a world of players and games-players. Halverson wants revenge and Angie seems to want to convert Boyd, spend all of his money, and shame him into making his move on her. She’s happy to explain why he should pursue her sexually and what’s wrong with him for not doing so. Gee, could it have anything to do with what she says Randy will do when he catches up to them?


America Fantastica is often laugh-out-loud funny, though whether the guffaws should be bitter or appropriate is open to interpretation. O’Brien skips us through conspiracy theories that are too ludicrous to make up, like one that claimed that a dozen American presidents–including Lincoln and Kennedy–never existed. He argues that “laughing at evil is the best revenge,” yet O’Brien also calls his book a slice of “mythomania.” Is America Fantastica an absurdist work? Undoubtedly, but when O’Brien states that “mythomania had become the nation’s pornography of choice,” is he being reportorial, cynical, world-weary, satirical, or all of the above?


My take is that America Fantastica suffers from uneven pacing and tone. Like many who have written road trip novels, O’Brien never quite made up his mind if he wanted to write a series of weird vignettes or a tightly-threaded narrative. This ultimately gives us the literary equivalent of a goulash with too many ingredients, some universally tasty and some that are an acquired taste. I liked America Fantastica, but like lots of other readers I was unsettled by it. Is America really as screwed up as O’Brien infers? It might well be, but do you see what I mean about being unsettled?


Rob Weir




Salvador Dali in Florida


Persistence of Memory


Salvador Dalí Museum

St. Peterburg, Florida


Thirty-six years after his death, Salvador Dalí (1904-89) continues to fascinate everyone from college students adorning their rooms with cheap Dalí posters to collectors who shell out millions for canvases at art auctions. Not bad for an enigmatic artist whose works often induce more head-scratching than deep understanding. Part of that has to do with Dalí’s singular talent for inventing himself. His mustache is instantly recognizable as are his famed “melting clocks,” which first appeared in a 1931 painting “Persistence of Memory.” 




There is much about Dalí that surprises, not the least of which is St. Petersburg, Florida is home to the second-largest repository of his works in the world. (Dalí’s home town of Figueres, Spain is number one.) The St. Petersburg collection is built upon 1,500 works belonging to Reynolds and Eleanor Morse, who befriended Dalí and became major patrons for some 40 years. Last month I paid a visit to the “new” facility (1982). The museum is located several blocks from the facility I toured the previous time I was in St. Petersburg. Frankly the exterior of the old building was more interesting than architect Yann Weymouth’s glass dome encased by glass cubes, but the interior space works well.


Dalí is so well-known for his surrealist works and outlandish personal display that they can obliterate his other personae. He didn’t begin as a surrealist or as a mustached peacock. Most young artists start by emulating their influences. A special exhibit titled Dalí and the Impressionists launched with cooperation of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts shows how he was shaped by Monet, Degas, Renoir and cubists such as Matisse and Cézanne. He also spent his youth painting in the style of Spanish (and Catalan) masters, especially Diego Veláquez (who was also a prototype for Dalí’s mustache) and then toyed by academic realism. Only then did he turn to the style for which he is most remembered.  


Dali work age 14



As for surrealism, if you have to ask what you’re seeing, you’re asking the wrong question. The surrealists insisted that these were dream images. That can be tempered a bit. It’s no accident that Dalí went in that direction in the 1920s . World War One left much of Europe a devastated landscape. This helps explain the nightmarish quality of many surrealist paintings, as does substances such as absinthe, mescaline, and peyote. Dalí later denied he used drugs, but many believe that was another reinvention. There is no doubt, though, that the past war was on his mind–a bandaged soldier with crutches where his trunk should be, horses fired from canons, crucified figures, a giant hand looming over a barren landscape, the wreckage of buildings personified….




There is debate over Dalí’s ideology during the rise of fascism in the 1930s. He feigned neutrality but there is strong evidence that he was sympathetic to Hitler it’s irrefutable that he was a Falangist (supporter of Franco). Dalí’s chameleon nature and reputation were such, though, that his 1934 visit to the United States was a sensation. You can date the American love of Dalí to that visit. One giant Dalí canvas, “Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean Sea,” is a masterful trompe l’oeil. Up close, it’s a nude woman with an elongated head looking through a portal. But why is there a blurry head-shot of Lincoln on the lower left. Ahh, step back about 30 yards, the woman disappears, and the entire composition morphs into Lincoln. (Squint and you can see it.)


Whither Dali? 

Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean Sea



By the 1950s Dalí was putting surrealism in the rearview mirror. He became a Catholic mystic putting a religious spin on “The Discovery of American by Columbus” and in his 1960 painting “The Ecumenical Council.” Dalí’s ego is on full display in the latter. You can see Dalí on the lower left painting the enormous scene before your eyes. 


The Discovery of America by Columbus



Ecumenical Council


Dalí was perhaps a problematic human being, but he was never boring. The museum also has whimsical 3-D objects such as one of his lobster telephones. And who but Dalí would create a nude bust topped by a baguette? 




If you find yourself in St. Pete, make sure to get to the  Dalí Museum. One tip: Avoid the 360-degree “Dalí Alive” show in the courtyard dome. It’s an upcharge and tells you nothing you won’t see inside. It was cutting edge in the 1980s, but it’s not a patch of the immersive art shows of today.


Rob Weir


The Fury: What Just Happened Here?



The Fury (2024)

By Alex Michaelides

Celadon, 294 pages



Mysteries with omniscient but unreliable narrators are always fun to read because they keep you on our toes. Once you know you can’t trust the voice telling the story, truth is up for grabs. The Fury is such a book. Author Alex MIchaelides calls his murder mystery a “whydunit” rather than a whodunit, though maybe whodunwhat would be better.


We know early on that our narrator Elliot Chase is a liar, but is he telling the truth when he tells us he is in love with actress Lana Farrar? Though she’s older than he, we know that Elliot was once the companion, perhaps lover, of the much older author Barbara West. We also know that Elliot considers himself Lana’s best friend, but does he know the difference between love and obsession?


The Fury takes us to Aura, Lana’s privately owned Greek island near Mykonos. Lana is an American who became a big star in Los Angeles. She now lives in London for most of the year with her 19 year-old son Leo –fathered by her first husband–and is now married to the overbearing Jason. She originally bought Aura for privacy and a break from Hollywood, but now uses it as a refuge from London’s unrelenting grayness. It was on Aura she first met Agathi, who is now her personal assistant wherever the household du jour might be.


The Fury is very Greek in several ways. Michaelides is a very good writer, the sort who can invoke everyone from Ford Maddox Brown and Agatha Christie to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus . If Heraclitus doesn’t ring bells, that’s because he’s been dead for around 2,500 years! He postulated that fire was the basic element of the universe, his way of saying that change–not continuity–is the constant of the universe. He was also known for bouts of melancholy so deep that he was called “the weeping philosopher.” He’s not a character in the book per se, but The Fury often evokes a Greek tragedy and its characters struggle with questions of whether they yearn for the comfort of stability or the enlivening chaos of change. Several experience bipolar mood swings.   


Those themes play out on Aura. In addition to Lana, Leo, Agathi, Jason, and Elliot, there is caretaker Nikos, who might also be in love with Lana, and actress Kate Crosby who might (or might not be) Lana’s friend, and once dated Jason and might (or might not be) having a torrid affair with him. Seven people, one corpse, no outside intruders, and a dark and stormy night (the novel’s namesake “fury”).  Lana waffles on everything, Leo is furious with his mother for dissuading his plan to become an actor, Jason is a disengaged gun-loving testosterone-poisoned jerk, Elliot is Elliot, Agathi would do whatever Lana asks, Nikos doesn’t like anyone except Lana, and Kate drinks too much.


Agatha Christie would have loved that scenario! (Is Agathi a play on her name?) Of course, Christie would have also gathered all the survivors in the drawing room and either Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot would have unveiled the murderer. Not Michaelides. You can read The Fury any of a number of ways, including the possibility that there was no murder or that it took place elsewhere in the past. Or maybe it was a dream, a play, a turnabout staged revenge, a madman’s fantasy, a purloined plot, a straight-forward point-and-kill murder, or any of the above in plug-in combinations. It’s a short book, but the only non-Heraclitus constancy is that few readers will like Elliot.


As a minor critique, some readers–and I lean that way myself–may find it hard to feel much sympathy for any of the characters. Each, in his or her own way, is vain, vacuous, over-privileged, and shallow. The novel often exudes a sense that these seven people deserve each other. I really like how Michaelides crafted the book, though I would have been just as happy had seven guns fallen into seven hands that simultaneously pulled the trigger!


Rob Weir