All Classical Radio James Depreist

Portland Book Festival: Tim O’Brien on extremism, late-night talk radio, and finding meaning in ‘America Fantastica’

The novelist and National Book Award winner says, "There’s a certain brokenhearted feel to our country.... We’re going through a convulsive national division where civility itself has collapsed.”

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Novelist Tim O’Brien says his whole writing career has been influenced by the “Odyssey,” which he calls “its own kind of road trip.” He will speak at 10 a.m. Saturday during the book festival.

Acclaimed novelist Tim O’Brien stepped away from writing for 20 years while raising his two sons. During that time, a voice popped into O’Brien’s head and wouldn’t stop talking: Angie Bing.

Angie Bing is one of the main characters in O’Brien’s novel America Fantastica, published Oct. 24 by Mariner Books and his first in two decades.

Angie Bing is a bank teller at Community National Bank in a northern California town. She recognizes long-time customer Boyd Halverson when he strides into the bank in August 2019. What she doesn’t expect is a stick-up: Boyd robs the bank, kidnaps Angie, and the two set off on a road trip that takes them to Mexico and throughout America.

Along the way, they grapple with their pasts, the people in them, love, God, and religion. Another voice that plays a prominent role in the novel is conservative late-night talk radio, spreading conspiracy theories about the political and social events dominating news headlines today – the COVID-19 pandemic, political unrest, the rise of far-right extremism. All the while, Boyd and Angie engage in a moral tug of war, as well as an inner war, as both try to find some meaning and peace in their lives.

O’Brien is the acclaimed writer of the Vietnam War novel The Things They Carried, a collection of linked stories based on his own experience serving in the Vietnam War, and which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 1978, he received the National Book Award in Fiction for Going After Cacciato. Time magazine named his 1994 novel, In the Lake of the Woods, the best novel of that year. He is the recipient of numerous additional awards and accolades: the Katherine Anne Porter Prize, the Mark Twain award in literature, and lifetime achievement awards from the Dayton Literary Peace Prize and the Pritzker Military Library, as well as election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

O’Brien, 77, says America Fantastica is likely his last book. He is one of the headliners of this year’s Portland Book Festival and will speak with Steph OpitzBookshop.org’s director of strategic partnerships and the founding director of Wordplay at The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, at 10 a.m. Saturday in First Congregational United Church of Christ during the festival. Festival details, including how to get tickets, are available here.

We spoke with O’Brien about his new novel; the interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

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America Fantastica brings together two important tropes in American literature – a classic Western bank robber story and road trip, with dystopia. What is the thinking behind bringing these two kinds of stories together?

O’Brien: On one level, it’s just entertainment. Road trips are entertaining in their own right. I remember, back in college, reading the Odyssey, which is its own kind of road trip with stops along the way, where things occur and the story escalates and changes and so on. That had a big influence on me. It has, my whole writing career. So that was one part of why I structured the book the way I did, and how I structured other books, too. Going After Cacciato was a kind of road trip from Vietnam to Paris, where a soldier just walks away from a war heading for the destination of peace.

[In America Fantastica,] the road trip takes place from 2019 to 2020. As Angie and Boyd are driving across America, from L.A. to Mexico, back to L.A. to Texas through Oklahoma, up into Minnesota, then back west, all around them at night, as they’re driving, they’re listening to talk radio and the darkness that’s coming out of talk radio — conspiracy theories of all sorts. COVID is a hoax. COVID is transmitted to us by the Chinese intentionally. That was another one.

Right.

Replacement theories, where white people are losing their privilege and power. The hoax of a lost election becoming a won election. They’re surrounded by this as they’re engaged in their own kind of moral tug of war.

The narration of those kinds of conspiracies really stands out against the characters of Boyd and Angie. I’m attracted to Angie’s character in particular. It’s interesting you mentioned the inspiration of the Odyssey, because Angie is the moral backbone of the book, I thought.

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I did, too. Certain aspects of her personality just appealed to me. She’s smart. She’s also a committed religious — almost missionary — kind of person out to save Boyd’s soul, even the soul of America. Pleading with him to stop talking, to adopt her religious beliefs, and him pressing back against her.

The way you talk about Angie made me think that it’s almost like walking on the edge of a knife. That kind of missionary Christianity and religious belief is a kind of morality. But if you take it too far, it is its own kind of extremism.

It becomes fanaticism, zealotry. And that is a danger. I think Angie’s in danger of it. And I think that’s what Boyd is pressing back against. He doesn’t exactly mock her, but he does push back. But there is that tug of war that goes on again on late-night radio. There’s so much zealotry and fanaticism as you’re driving at three o’clock in the morning.

And it’s so easy to find on the dial, too.  

(laughing) It’s hard to avoid. I’m a late-night person, and you have to turn that dial to get to something that might be a symphony or something you wanna listen to.

As I hear you talking about Angie and Homer and the Odyssey, is she based on a Penelope-type figure?

Yeah. She’s not a pious kind of person. After all, she’s has a couple of fiancés, or declared to a couple fiancés.

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I think that we understand Penelope to be a pure kind of person in the way that she waited for Odysseus.

Absolutely.  

But she’s also a very cunning strategist.

I don’t think Angie’s cunning. I think she’s open to the world and doesn’t know exactly what she wants. Her desire for a man — she goes after Boyd big time in the novel and is rejected —

– and falls in love with him very quickly.

Yeah. And that’s countered by her missionary [beliefs] she’s at war at with, I think, in herself. She’s full of contradictions, and that’s what I like about her. She’s not all pure and she’s not the opposite.

There’s a line from a Robert Graves poem called The Devil’s Advice to Storytellers that I took to heart years and years ago: “Nice contradiction between fact and fact / Will make the whole read human and exact.” That’s what I like about Angie, the contradictions in her personality. She is irrepressible, she just will not stop. And I like that about her as well.

One thing I noticed in Boyd and Angie, and one thing I hear in this conversation, is that the novel is about extremes and how we handle extremism. On the one hand, you have Boyd robbing a bank, then also wanting to confront his ex-wife and people from his past and find some answers. On the other hand, there’s the extremism of Angie going after all these men, falling in love with Boyd, her religious beliefs, and then in the background there’s these conspiracy theories.

I think you’ve read it right. Boyd, to me, is brokenhearted. He’s been fired from a job. He’s lost a wife he’s still in love with and will be probably for eternity. He was selling rayon in a JCPenney store and lived the last 10 years in a kind of endless doldrum. His robbing the bank was a way to make himself move. So when Angie asked him, “Why’d you do it?” He said, “To make myself move.” The second half of the book is a movement toward a kind of reconciliation with life itself: I’m going to continue knowing it’s not going to be pleasant, but I’m going to keep pushing toward whatever the future may bring.

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Finding some kind of purpose or meaning.

Yeah. Some kind of peace.

The undercurrent of all this is a view into the underside or the underbelly of the American dream – what happens when life doesn’t turn out the way people expected or were told to expect.

Absolutely. There’s a certain brokenhearted feel to our country, I think.

Yeah. You mentioned that Boyd has that brokenheartedness.

I don’t think there’s any doubt about it. He’s still in love with someone who’s divorced him 10 years earlier, and he always will be. He was once a star journalist and was fired in great disgrace and shame.  

People go through different phases of disgrace and of shame about their life, or their life has taken a great fall from a pinnacle to the abyss. And that’s where Boyd has found himself, through his own doing. And he knows it. So it’s not just brokenheartedness, it’s a sort of self-hatred, I think, in part.

Looking at the course of your life and career, you witnessed the 1960s and served in the Vietnam War. The Things They Carried is your novel about the Vietnam War. That was a moment of great upheaval in our country, and we are in another period of great upheaval.

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There are certain watersheds in the history of any country. The Civil War was a watershed. The Great Depression was one. Vietnam was certainly one. And I think you’re right. We’re going through a convulsive national division where civility itself has collapsed. All you have to do is turn on the Fox channel, or watch the proceedings in the House of Representatives. You see the absence of decency and civility, the willingness to listen, a kind of absolutism that one has to hope we will recover from.

I’m an idealist. I’m hoping that reason will prevail, as well as decency and civility and the willingness to compromise and to listen to others.

Your novel dives right into those issues. What role do you think writers and journalists and artists can play in resisting the extremism you’ve spoken of?

Well, for me, it’s to tell a story. A novelist’s death sentence is to preach. That’s what a story is for. You let the characters and the plot carry it. I tried to wrap very serious content inside an entertaining book. Sort of like Jonathan Swift did with his satires, or Mark Twain at the end of his life. He could be funny and entertaining, but also nasty, angry, especially at hypocrisy and overblown piety. So that’s why the book is written the way it’s written.


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Photo Joe Cantrell

Amanda Waldroupe is a freelance journalist and writer based in Portland, Oregon. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including The Guardian, Bklyner, The Brooklyn Rail, InvestigateWest, The Oregonian, the Portland Tribune, Oregon Humanities, and many others. She has been a fellow and writer-in-residence at the Logan Nonfiction Program, the Banff Centre’s Literary Journalism program, Alderworks Alaska, and the Sou’wester Artist Residency Program.
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