Kurt Baumeister Interviewed by Matt Norman for J.M.W.W.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

The World of Pax Americana: An Interview with Kurt Baumeister

Earlier this summer, I had the chance to interview novelist Kurt Baumeister about his fantastic debut novel Pax Americana. Part lit fiction, part thriller, part revisionist history, it’s one of the most unique books I’ve read in a very long time. Here’s a transcript of our chat, which appeared on JMWW.

If Pax Americana sounds like something you’d be into, get it here, and let me know what you think.

thenormannation@gmail.com

THE WORLD OF PAX AMERICANA: AN INTERVIEW WITH KURT BAUMEISTER

Pax AmericaI have a confession. Over the last few years, I’ve read fewer books than at any other time in my adulthood. Real life, with its needy children, unfinished novels in progress, and full-time job, has pretty much destroyed my reading time. And, what’s worse, when I do get time to read, I nearly always head straight for my comfort zone—lit fiction, set in the present day, often written by someone named Jonathan.

Recently, though, I broke out of my box with the novel Pax Americana by debut novelist Kurt Baumeister, and I’m glad I did. It’s set in the U.S. in 2034 after thirty years of right-wing presidencies. Part lit fiction, part thriller, part revisionist history, it’s a fun, funny, and often chilling look at a country in which diplomacy, evangelical thinking, and economic policy have all blended into one big, frightening mess.

The first book in a three-part series, Pax Americana is unlike anything I’ve read in a very long time. Below is a conversation between Kurt (KGB) and me (MN) in which we cover his inspiration for the book, some mutual Vonnegut-related gushing, how a manuscript becomes a book, and more.

Matt Norman:    Whenever I read a book that I know I couldn’t write, I always find myself wanting to ask the writer a lot of questions. With Pax Americana, that’s how I felt. My brain just doesn’t work in a way that’s capable of creating something like this. The fact that you’ve essentially created an entire time period is pretty amazing. How did the book present itself to you?

Kurt G. Baumeister:  Thinking back on how Pax Americanaevolved, it’s easy to get lost, easy for me at least. Best I can remember, this began as a short story idea, or maybe it was a short novel idea. At any rate…something short. This was fifteen years ago, maybe a year post 9/11.

I remember the early idea being that of a failed Armageddon, that Jerusalem had been razed in some sort of nuclear event. But, the apocalypse didn’t happen, which did a complete screw-job on religions far and wide. This is an idea that’s still very much operative in Pax Americana.

There was a young American real estate developer trying to put together funding to rebuild the Holy City. The idea of “God software” was embedded somewhere in all this. I was playing with the commercialization of the software, the rollout as a normal product and how that would all work. Though I was coming from a comic angle, as I tend to, I was still attempting to leverage my experience working in corporate strategy, which was what I was doing for money at the time. My developer wanted to create a whole “Jerusalem experience,” and this software and the rebuilt city were both part of that.

As the Bush administration wound on, and as world events went from bad to worse, I had the idea of a hyper-conservative America, one based on this crazy-ass synthesis of Christianity and capitalism. So, my thoughts moved to alternate history, to what the Iraq War might mean to America and the world. I wanted to play with the idea that even if Iraq had worked out “well,” it was still a terribly stupid idea long-term. And I think history has born that out.

MN:    Well, that seems fairly ambitious.

KGB:  Yes, I guess there is a lot of ambition in Pax Americana, though I feel I’ve toned things down a bit between the last draft and the one I wound up publishing.

MN:    What was the publishing process like for you?

KGB:  I took my first crack at getting this into print about five years ago. Instead of the beginning of a trilogy, it was a single book, about half again longer than Pax Americana in its final form.

That book had seven different narrators, all of them filtered through the main character’s (Ken Clarion’s) first-person account. There were three sections and a hundred and eleven chapters. The chapters alternated between numbers and titles. I think I was trying to say something about the nature of narrative truth. I sent it around to agents, couldn’t get any takers. I decided to try rewriting it as a more commercial book. Or, at least, what I thought was a more commercial book.

I spent a while doing that, rebuilding from the ground up. The agents were much more positive the second time. While I was doing this, my friend, James Reich, started a small publishing company, Stalking Horse Press. I had asked James to do a blurb for me, so he’d read the book. I loved the blurb he wrote, so I decided that rather than continuing to look for an agent, I’d just ask James if Stalking Horse would be interested. And they were. So, here we are.

MN:    The idea of a “more commercial book.”  Does that mean literary/commercial, thriller, mystery. Yada yada? Did you have it in a certain category?

KGB:  All the advice I got was to try to work out a category for it, something other than “literary fiction.” Having made that effort, I’m not sure how much difference it makes to give yourself marching orders, as in, “I want to be literary or commercial, ambitious or popular.” You can try, of course, and some writers seem to be able to do both at different times, or even both at once; though I’m not sure it’s because they’re telling themselves what to do, but rather that the confluence of topic, energy level, luck, and individual talents leads to success. Ultimately, I guess we just write what we can write. Perhaps the truth about Pax Americana is that the commercial version is more literary, or ambitious or whatever, than I thought it was. I just try to come up with things I’m interested in writing about. That’s the only way it works for me.

MN:    15 years is a long time. You started during the Bush Administration. Then came Obama. Then…well, we all know where we are now.  Did the “real world”—things like events and changing administrations—affect your writing at all?

KGB:  You’re right. That is a long time. But, no, I don’t think reality has changed the basic story much. Perhaps I’ve mellowed out a bit in terms of religion. Even though I’m not a believer, in this last version of Pax Americana I was conscious of trying to develop some level of intellectual balance on the question of whether religion is good or evil.

One of the great ideas I come back to as a writer is Milan Kundera’s concept of the novel (and novelist) as posers of questions, not dispensers of answers. I may have my personal biases about how legitimate faith is, but I’ve tried to balance those against the possibilities for atheism and agnosticism leading to the same sort of evil extremes. And they have in history, notably with the Soviets and Communist Chinese; though those certainly haven’t been the only examples. Perhaps, in the end, Pax Americana is about the dangers of extremism, regardless of what belief structure breeds it.

MN:    I thought a lot about Kurt Vonnegut when I was reading this. If I had to guess, I’d bet he’s a writer who has had an influence on you, right?

KGB:  Vonnegut’s work has certainly influenced mine. And having read (and reviewed) your We’re All Damaged, I’d guess KV was a significant marker for you, but in different ways. Truth is, this is one of the reasons I was so excited to have this discussion with you. Authorial influences are fascinating to me, and to think that we can leverage Vonnegut’s influence to very different ends is intriguing.

We’re All Damaged is a *very* funny book and it definitely has a political angle, but it’s much subtler than Pax Americana, not an over-the-top satire, more a realistic comedy. Much more accessible, too. All of which may explain why so many people have read it! I’ll answer the question, I promise… But, what about you? Has KV been a significant influence for you? How? And who else? I’d guess maybe Fitzgerald, but beyond that, I’m not so sure.

MN:    Yeah, I love Vonnegut. But, if I’m being totally honest, I was never terribly moved by his novel plots. In fact, I doubt I could even give a terribly good synopsis of any of his books. For me, his brilliance was in his sentence-to-sentence writing. He had this amazing ability to pull you along with a series of simple, well-crafted, workman-like sentences. Nothing particularly special. Then, BOOM, he’d drop the hammer on you with a line so gorgeous and insightful and perfect that it’d take your breath away.  He knew when to turn it on, you know. Simple. Simple. Readable. Then devastating.

I love The Great Gatsby, and I namechecked the hell out of it in We’re All Damaged, but I don’t think Fitzgerald has been a big influence on me. I always talk about Richard Russo being my greatest influence—mainly because he writes “serious fiction” that’s also funny, which is my goal.

Kurt BKGB:  I do see some similarities between Vonnegut’s work and mine, particularly in the ways Pax Americana echoes his apocalyptic book, Cat’s Cradle. Both books have broad casts of characters, technology that’s the ultimate catalyst for a sort of man-made apocalypse, geopolitical mayhem, heavy misinformation, and islands that figure significantly in their storylines. Not that those similarities are necessarily born of consciously “emulating” Vonnegut or anything like that. In addition to reading Vonnegut myself, I know his work was a significant influence for Martin Amis, particularly early in his career. And I’d say without a doubt that Amis is my top literary influence. Meaning there’s a bit of literary refraction going on here as well, that at least to a certain extent KV influences me via his influence on Amis. That’s sort of cool, right?

MN:    Yeah, one of my grad school professors talked about that.  He said Hemingway influenced EVERY writer after him. Even if you never read him, someone who influenced you had been influenced by him…and on and on. The Circle of Hemingway. But, enough about him. Let’s complain about politics. We’re living in a very divided time, obviously. For writers, it’s a Catch 22. If you avoid politics, you risk coming off as toothless and vanilla. But, if your book has a particular POV, you risk alienating tons of people. What are your thoughts on that?

KGB:  Ha, well, I guess my first thought would be that I’m probably guilty as charged. I’m sure my book’s politics will alienate a lot of people. Which, as you say, is the cost of doing something like writing a satire about religion.

If you choose to do something like that, you must realize you’re going to make a lot of people unhappy. Probably, my touchpoint for that is Rushdie and what he went through with The Satanic Verses. That was going on when I first began writing fiction, and it’s certainly a memory that’s stuck with me. Maybe more than anything, that crystallized my belief we must stand up against religious radicals, people who would have their unseen, believed-in worlds become paramount to the reality we can all see and share. In fact, I’d have to say that even allowing believed-in worlds equal weight to what we can see is a big problem. These are the issues that make the reconciliation of Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Speech so challenging and important.

MN:    How are Books 2 and 3 coming? Do you have them sketched out in your head?  Are you organized like that, or do you just sit down and figure it out as you go?

KGB:  I have lots of pages written, perhaps thousands. And I do have the overall arc of the story sketched. But there will be a lot of work in putting it all together. Honestly, I’m not a terribly confident person and that’s probably why it took me so long to publish Pax Americana. Maybe I should have just gone ahead five or even ten years ago and published something along the lines of Pax Americana. Instead, I tried to get an agent, then did the rewrites I spoke of above and tried to get an agent again. I mean, I learned a lot from the process, but I think I should have trusted myself more than I did.

I’ve got a lot of backlogged material already written—other novels, stories, poems—and I’m trying to trust myself a little more about just sending it out into the world. I’m not getting any younger, you know? Before I get back to Tuck Squires and Pax Americana, I have this other project (a novel) I’m working on. It’s a sort of comic crime fantasy narrated by the Norse god, Loki. I’m working to keep that streamlined, down to perhaps sixty thousand words. It’s mostly contemporary, told in first person, which is honestly my most comfortable writing voice.

Matthew Norman is an advertising copywriter. He lives with his wife and two daughters in Baltimore. His first novel, Domestic Violets, was nominated in the Best Humor Category at the 2011 Goodreads Choice Awards. His second novel, We’re All Damaged, was published in 2016. Visit his blog at thenormannation.com, or follow him on Twitter @TheNormanNation.

 

Kurt Baumeister Interviewed by Tobias Carroll for Vol. 1 Brooklyn

 

Kurt Baumeister’s new novel Pax Americana is a tale of espionage, politics, and technology that could alter human society forever. It’s set in the near future–but this is also the near future of an alternate timeline, where an end to term limits caused the office of the President in the 21st century to be utterly dominated by Republicans. The end result is a story that plays out like a funhouse mirror for contemporary politics and debates over foreign policy and religion, with Baumeister’s plot shifting from the comic to the nerve-wracking at the drop of a hat. I talked with him about the making of the book, the creation of this fictional timeline, and much more.

Pax Americana isn’t just set in the near future–it’s set in the near future of an alternate timeline. What led you to go with that approach, rather than a more standard-issue authoritarian future?

I try not to do anything “standard-issue.” Sometimes that’s a vice, sometimes a virtue, but I never want to make anything too easy on myself. There were things I wanted to say about our world, the real world, that were best done via an alternate history, one that nonetheless maps back easily to where we are. I see Pax Americana as a warning of sorts. While it focuses on the Bush 43 administration and setting up an alternate timeline based on that, the message is that evil intent leads to an evil outcome regardless of how well you manage, or transact, your evil; that as much as we’d like to change history, to imagine it might have been different, we never can. But not necessarily because fate, destiny, or anything so omnipotent and gooey as God is calling the shots, rather that we carry our demise in our original intent. We impose our fate on ourselves. I think this makes Pax Americana timely in the Trump era. Somehow, someway, despite all the havoc Dubya wrought, we wound up, less than a decade later, electing a president who’s similar to him in a lot of ways, and certainly seems poised to enact a similar set of policies. So, clearly, we didn’t learn our lesson as a nation. Maybe, in a way, Trump is a product of America’s bad national karma with respect to the Iraq War, our full due for electing Dubya in the first place.

How much work did you need to do as far as figuring out how the sociopolitical timeline of your novel came to be? 

A lot. An embarrassing amount. Lots of needling things, mulling them over, changing back and forth. And the fact that I worked on this for so long means the timelines had to change many times, to evolve. When I started this project, I was looking at something around 2020 as ground zero for the present tense action. But the longer it took, the less that interested me. The future was always shrinking, encroaching, becoming the present. So, I had to keep pushing out, expanding the timeline. Linking back to your question above, I’m sure I could have set the technological premise anywhere from another twenty-five years to several more centuries in the future; but there were things I wanted to say about our current time and, beyond that, our fundamental relationship with the metaphysical that were best said using a canvas that was easily recognizable.

Given that Pax Americana has entered the world in the first year of the Trump administration, has that timing changed how you view anything in the novel? 

That’s a good question. I guess the biggest change has been to make the book’s premise of a hyper-conservative America seem more dangerous, more immediate than it would have under Clinton. To me, Trump seems very much like an echo of Dubya, but worse. There’s the same sort of dim-witted, know-it-all-but-really-know-nothing cockiness but it’s not even tempered with Dubya’s “compassionate conservatism,” Dubya’s seemingly-genuine belief in Christianity.

Tuck Squires, the secret agent at the center of the book, comes off as a fairly odious character for a number of reasons. What led you to place him as the central character, as opposed to someone more sympathetic?

Yeah, I guess Tuck’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea and he certainly has some problems, but I don’t know I’d go so far as to describe him as odious or patently unsympathetic. Some readers really like Tuck and I think that when I write these other two books in the trilogy, there’ll be a lot of change for Tuck, a lot of growth. Which you need in a main character to carry a trilogy, especially a trilogy like this, one that I hope will have some scale, not just dramatically but thematically. The other point I’d make is that I think Tuck is funny and not always from the standpoint of someone you’re laughing with. There are a lot of times he’s someone you’re laughing at. At least I hope people are. And I don’t have any problem with that. I welcome that. I’m doing it myself. Perhaps there’ll even come a day when Tuck, looking back on his life, looking back on some of the traits you see as odious, will laugh at himself.

Your novel juxtaposes artificial intelligence, questions of religion, and conflicting political ideologies. Did working on the book change how you perceived any of these things over the course of time? 

I think this final version of the book made me seek a little more intellectual balance within the text. I’ve tried to look at the possibility of anti-religious extremism as a real danger and, in some ways, that seems like the boldest, scariest part of the book. As much as religion can be a danger to us, perhaps going too far in one’s dismissal of it can be a danger, too. In fact, I’m sure it can. I hope people will see that in the book, not become too convinced it’s just a critique of religion. Even to the extent it’s a critique of religion, it’s not that per se, but rather a critique of humanity’s attempts to understand the metaphysical world.

Late in the book, there’s a reference to the 1960’s film adaptation of Casino Royale, which satirized the genre and took a very different tone from other cinematic takes on James Bond. Was that an influence on Pax Americana at all? 

Absolutely. I think I talked about that a bit in my Largehearted Boy playlist. I love the 007 movies, even the parody you mentioned, Casino Royale. Much of Pax Americana is a send-up of the spy genre, Bond specifically. I see Tuck as a sort of 21st century American James Bond (which, I think, is how Tuck sees himself, or at least wishes he could), though any assessment of Bond, especially the cinematic version we’re most steeped in, must take into account how ludicrous his world is. Anyone who tries to read Pax Americana as a straight spy novel—that is, stripped of notions of satire and the absurd—would be making a big mistake and probably come away hugely disappointed.

 

http://www.vol1brooklyn.com/2017/06/20/we-carry-our-demise-in-our-original-intent-kurt-baumeister-on-pax-americana/

PAX AMERICANA Selected by LitReactor as One of the Best of 2017…So Far…

Halfway There: The Best Books of 2017…So Far
By Gabino Iglesias for LitReactor June 14, 2017

At the start of every year, I take a look at what books will be published and think “Man, it’s gonna be a great year to be a reader.” Then, every single year, I’m blown away by the quality of the books I read. This year has been no different, and despite having half of 2017 to go, there has been more than enough outstanding literature to make a decent list. Keep in mind that I read crime, horror, bizarro, poetry, nonfiction, and literary fiction, so what you’re about to read brings together a plethora of genres. Let’s get started.


‘The Weight of This World’ by David Joy (March 2017)

This is a gritty, violent, nasty, sad, heartbreaking, and absolutely beautiful novel. David Joy is at the top of the heap and occupies a special table where only folks like him, Benjamin Whitmer, and Daniel Woodrell get to sit. Appalachian noir is an amazing thing, but only when treated with the respect and authenticity that Joy brings to the table.

Buy The Weight of This World from Amazon here.

‘The Ridge’ by John Rector (April 2017)

One of the things I love about Rector’s work is that you never know what to expect from him, and The Ridge is yet more proof. The best way to describe this would be a cross between classic noir, a creepy science fiction thriller, and Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives. I hate to use the term “readable” because I can’t explain it in a couple of sentences, but trust me when I tell you this is one of the fastest 300 page novels you’ll read this year.

Buy The Ridge from Amazon here.

‘Things to Do When You’re Goth in the Country’ by Chavisa Woods (May 2017)

This one was one of those rare books that I learn about from a PR person, request a review copy, and immediately know I’ve found a gem. The title, the cover, the stories, the atmosphere…everything here works together to deliver a superb collection. Funny, sad, gritty, human, and dark, this is one of those books that you simply have to read before the year is out.

Buy Things to Do When You’re Goth in the Country from Amazon here.

‘She Rides Shotgun’ by Jordan Harper (June 2017)

You’ll hear more about this one as the year goes on. It’s an impeccable crime novel with a giant heart, massive doses of hatred, vengeance, pain, and violence, and some of the sharpest, tightest prose you’ll encounter in 2017. Jordan Harper has written the kind of novel that makes me want to walk out of the house and punch my neighbor in the face because I know I’ll never write like that.

Buy She Rides Shotgun from Amazon here.

‘Beneath’ by Kristi Demeester (April 2017)

Confession: I have a soft spot for novels that feature fellow journalists. Truth: that has nothing to do with how good this book is. Word Horde is one of my favorite indie presses because they consistently publish unique books, and this one is a superb addition to their impressive catalog. Packed with dark memories and strange happenings, this is a tense, atmospheric novel you don’t want to skip.

Buy Beneath from Amazon here.

‘Black Mad Wheel’ by Josh Malerman (May 2017)

Saying “This new author knocked it outta the park!” is something that brings me joy. However, consistency is difficult, so in this case, saying “Damn, Josh did it again!” brought much happiness. This is weird and fantastic and tight and weird and scary and, perhaps more importantly, a bizarre love letter to friendship, music, and The High Strung. Pick it up today.

Buy Black Mad Wheel from Amazon here.

‘Pax Americana’ by Kurt Baumeister (March 2017)

If this wasn’t so well crafted, which is an obvious sign of the amount of time the author spent writing it, I would have guessed this was an outstanding narrative crafter with only one goal in mind: to show us a bizarre-yet-plausible religious/political future. As a bonus, Baumeister throws in plenty of humor and crackling dialogue to go along with the kindapping/religious/scientific mayhem. Another great novel from Skyhorse Publishing, who seem to be incapable of publishing a disappointing book.

Buy Pax Americana from Amazon here.

‘Borne’ by Jeff VanderMeer (April 2017)

The Southern Reach Trilogy was amazing, right? That thing blew up. There was no way VanderMeer was going to top himself. He was already too good, too big, too strange. Well, this is his literary “hold my beer.” I won’t go on and on about it because every other venue has already done so (and I have a full review coming). In any case, get with the flying bear before it makes all the best of 2017 lists out there.

Buy Borne from Amazon here.

’13 Views of the Suicide Woods’ by Bracken MacLeod (April 2017)

I read the first story and couldn’t put the book down. MacLeod writes short fiction with the same powerful voice he uses for longer work, and the result is commanding literature that dances between genres and can go from poetic to sad to creepy to bizarre in just a couple of lines. Like other books on this list, I’m working on a full review of this collection, and finding words to describe the variety present here is proving to be a challenge.

Buy 13 Views of the Suicide Woods from Amazon here.

‘Heathenish’ by Kelby Losack (April 2017)

This is one of those books that crack your chest open and squeeze your heart. Even better, Losack does it while telling a real, depressive story full of hope, desperation, booze, rage, and drugs. The passages dealing with kids? Those will stay with you for the rest of your life.

Buy Heathenish from Amazon.com

‘The Twenty Days of Turin’ by Giorgio De Maria (February 2017)

This one is a true cult classic that’s been translated and released for a new generation of readers. Atmospheric, tense, paranoid, and extremely dark with a few touches of cosmic horror and insanity, this one stuck with me despite being one of the first books I read this year.

Buy The Twenty Days of Turin from Amazon here.

‘Exit West’ by Mohsin Hamid (March 2017)

Very few narratives offer such an honest, magical, brutal look at both the immigrant experience and the inevitable spiral into entropy that all relationships go through. Hamid is a gifted writer with a knack for crucial details and for giving readers access to his characters’ innermost thoughts and feelings.

Buy Exit West from Amazon here.

‘Entropy in Bloom’ by Jeremy Robert Johnson (April 2017)

Of all the books on this list, this is perhaps the one I most wanted to read at the beginning of 2017. Johnson is a gigantic figure in bizarro and indie lit in general because he can deliver outstanding short stories in whatever genre he wants. With this collection, he’s breaking out into larger markets and telling the world that one of the best in indie lit is also one of the best wherever he goes. I guarantee you will be seeing this on best of 2017 lists, so get on it.

Buy Entropy in Bloom from Amazon here.

‘Tell Me How It Ends’ by Valeria Luiselli (April 2017)

Luiselli produced a short book that manages to explain the immigration crisis while simultaneously giving it a face and shining a light of its most horrifying aspects. Emotionally devastating and well researched, this is a necessary book, especially given the current political panorama. Read it now.

Buy Tell Me How It Ends from Amazon here.

‘The Rebellion’s Last Traitor’ by Nik Korpon (June 2017)

If you tell me a crime author is going to switch to science fiction and post-apocalyptic fiction, I’ll probably shake my head. If you tell me that author is Nik Korpon, I’ll drop a “Hell yeah!” Why? Because he has been bringing together the best elements of whatever the hell he pleases for years with stellar results. This book is no different, and it signals the arrival of a commanding new voice in science fiction.

By The Rebellion’s Last Traitor from Amazon here.

‘There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé’ by Morgan Parker (February 2017)

Funny and touching and sarcastic and feminine and strong and wildly entertaining and unapologetic about race and messed up things and pop culture, this is one of the best poetry collections I’ve read this year, and one you should definitely check out.

Buy There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé from Amazon here.


The scariest thing about this list? Well, it’s actually two things. The first is that I am somewhat human and thus have been unable to read everything that’s been published, so I’m sure there are many books missing. The second is the novels I’ve read/am reading for review that haven’t come out yet are just as strong as these. The second half of 2017 promises to be amazing as well. What will you be reading and what have you loved so far? Let me know in the comments so I can keep adding books to my long, long wish list.

Gabino Iglesias

Column by Gabino Iglesias

Gabino Iglesias is a writer, journalist, and book reviewer living in Austin, TX. He’s the author of ZERO SAINTS, HUNGRY DARKNESS, and GUTMOUTH. His reviews have appeared in Electric Literature, The Rumpus, 3AM Magazine, Marginalia, The Collagist, Heavy Feather Review, Crimespree, Out of the Gutter, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, HorrorTalk, Verbicide, and many other print and online venues.

Jan Elizabeth Watson Reviews PAX AMERICANA for Electric Literature

Kurt Baumeister Envisions an Even More Bizarre America

The satirical novel, Pax Americana, waxes dystopian, and hilarity ensues

Reviewed by Jan Elizabeth Watson for Electric Literature

June 8, 2017

© Adam Watson

The society we find ourselves in today — a culture comprising equal parts absurdity and corruption — begs to be satirized, if not so much for comic purposes than for greater moral ones. Here in 2017, we have at least as much to lampoon as the ancient Romans (we’re only a couple more excesses and a few more reality TV shows away from the return of vomitoriums and gladiatorial blood sports, it seems), yet fewer and fewer people seem to be writing satire — or, more pointedly, fewer and fewer people seem to be writing satire well. Thus Kurt Baumeister’s zestful, remorseless, clear-eyed debut novel Pax Americana bounds on to the scene at a time when its humor is not only welcome, but necessary.

The plot and premise of Pax Americana reads a bit like a the sly wink of James Bond novel as directed by Tarantino at his most manic. The story begins in the year 2034, a time when America’s large-scale conservatism and religious fundamentalism has a stranglehold on the national consciousness. In the novel’s first chapter we are introduced to Tuck Squires, an agent for the Interenal Defense Bureau, whose internal narrative sets the book’s tone as he is driving along in his Epiphany listening to Christian music:

“He cut the music and thought of America, of all it had meant and would mean to the world. He thought of another song, one that soared in a very different way than Jehovah’s Wishlist. He thought of ‘America the Beautiful,’ how it was a conundrum, so right and so wrong all at once.Or, not so much wrong exactly, more like inadequate, unable to see far enough forward to take in not just America’s yesterdays, but its todays and tomorrows.”

Tuck, as we can infer from this passage, is as earnest a Traditionalist as they come…. and it is usually the earnest and self-serious who most desperately need to be satirized. As we meet his Traditionaist cronies — a cast of characters ranging from the once-suave special agent Ken Clarion to the charismatic Rev. Dr. Ravelton Parlay, owner of the Righteous Burger restaurant chain and occupant of an estate modeled after the Whie House (the hilariously named Bayousalem) — we see Baumeister’s ability to produce characters of nearly Dickensian grotesquerie yet present them in such a congenial way that we can’t help almost liking them, or at least feeling sorry for them, even as we acknowledge how corrupt and wrongheaded they are. It takes a skillful satirist to elevate the buffoons to a level of humanity without losing his comic edge, and Pax Americana manages to strike this balance in an appealing way, with delightfully acrobatic shifts between the highbrow and the lowbrow, the quotidian and the fantastic, the modest and the grandiose.

At the book’s progressive moral center is Diana Scorsi, an intelligent, attractive, and idealistic woman who soon finds herself in “a black Wonderland… a dimension where things can go wrong in a great hurry.” Scorsi is the inventor and developer of groundbreaking computer software that could change the sociopolitical landscape, essentially returning us to a more autonomous, free-thinking, pacifistic ways of being: “Everyone could have their own god, and that god would be Symmetra, and if everyone had it there would never be need for war again.”



Naturally, the Traditionalists have other ideas for how this software should be used. The resulting conflict includes kidnapping by men in superhero masks, fiery deaths and near-deaths, scenic locales, double agents and double crossers, and a surprise ending that most readers should find oddly satisfying. Pax Americana itself is a mad romp, utterly pleasurable and fun on one level while trenchant and recognizable on another. The complacent idicoracy in Baumeister’s vision of 2034 is not so distant from the increasingly divided country we are seeing today, which adds relevance and gravitas to a novel that already stands on its own as being a hell of a lot of fun.

But the greatest pleasure in Baumeister’s writing lies not just his comic gifts and political prescience; it comes also from his nimble versatility and depth, exhibited in many passages throughout Pax Americana. Note this bit of omniscient reflection of Ken Clarion’s: “Whether it was love for the country, the job, or a woman, love lingered. Even when everyone around you believed it had become something else — jealousy, pain, friendship, hate — even then, you carried a memory of its time as love. Like faded tracks in fallen snow, footprints only you could see, love survived whether you wanted it to or not.” This is terrific writing with an unpretentiously literate sensibility, suggesting the work of an author with far more plays of light and shadow to show us.

Pax Americana Reviewed by Jennifer Spiegel for Live Oak Review

PAX AMERICANA by Kurt Baumeister

Reviewed by Jennifer Spiegel

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When I started the process of reviewing this book, my own small world was not exactly on my mind. More than anything, I eagerly opened my copy to see the workings of the indie press industry. How is Small Press America (there might be a pun buried in here) doing in 2017? There are, of course, a plethora of bookish offerings, but this particular one landed on my radar.

The funny thing is that my life inadvertently encroached. As I began reading this political satire, my husband and I finished another weirdly timed thing: a TV binge of “The West Wing” (a show that ended in 2006)—having ventured into it accidentally, without a thought about the current political climate. We just wanted to see it. Additionally, I was listening to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale on audio for a future review with Snotty Literati, another dystopian-political-kind-of-book. And, well, we can’t exactly ignore the world into which this book was born, for better or for worse: the, um, “Trump Era.” Lastly, I’m a practicing—albeit unorthodox, rakishly anti-Trump, mildly castigated by more than a few—Christian. (Poor Baumeister! Should I even touch his decidedly anti-Christian political prose?) These things worked on me as I read this novel.

I opened the book—all Jed Bartlett-infused, Trumped-out, quaking from Atwood, and Christianized at heart. And, lo and behold, I just went with it. I went with the crazy. Politics as they are, imagination shaken, faith under fire, I read this indie offering. What did I find?

It’s a rollicking good time of wild satire, enmeshed with keen observation of rightwing ideology, and full-bodied (as in full-bodied coffee) prose. Prose that is alive. Prose with bite. Prose like a smack in the face.

Baumeister envisions a 2034 post-Bush America. He didn’t even know about Trump’s presidency yet, but it’s impossible to read it apart from The Donald now. (I did wonder if the timing of publication helped or hurt the book.) Part James Bond (with one tiny nod to 007 within its pages), part Austin Powers, part Arthur C. Clarke’s “Hal” in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and part Jerry Falwell, the narrative takes a humorous tone, but it’s almost as if Baumeister has read democracy’s entrails—the lingering odor of prophesy trails after each sentence.

Just look at some of the features of this new America:

The big evangelist is married to his fourth wife, named Kelly Anne!

The dominant economic ideology is Christian Consumerism, which includes “Christian banks and Christian department stores, Christian gun manufacturers and, of course, Christian defense contractors.” Christian businesses get tax breaks. “Vanderbilt’s Pat Robertson Seminary for Christian Capitalists” is one place of study. There is a “Virtual Jerusalem.”

Comically apt name-dropping runs throughout the narrative. Some Cheney here. Some Putin there. “Slick Willie,” “his wife,” and “the Kenyan” are all referenced.

And, best of all, there is “Righteous Burger,” an echo of Chick-fil-A. Blood of the Lamb Shakes and Freedom Fries are available and a Christian consumer might sit in one of the “Never Walk Alone two-seaters” with a “life-sized hologram” that sermonizes. Its bathroom is marked “HETEROSEXUAL MEN.”

Apart from the barbs at religion, though, clever innocuous commentary abounds. Having run through the gamut of the ordinarily named hurricanes, hurricanes are now given such creative monikers as “Biffy, Poffy, Tippy, Albertine, Screwy, and Lu-Lu.”

But the crux of Pax Americana is Symmetra, which is the computer software that might be said to meet the human need for meaning. Baumeister writes, “The dream was of no more cookie cutter gods. Everyone could have their own god, and that god would be Symmetra, and if everyone had it there would never be need for war again. And that dream was enough on its own.” The problem of world peace, then, is the most critical problem (as opposed to the problem of evil or the problem of existence). Consider this long-ish passage:

“The answer lay in the middle ground of coexistence, in finding a way to get past religion. And that was where Symmetra came in. Symmetra would break the old paradigm; free the world from men whose ideas were static and ancient—stupid at best, wicked at worst. It would free humanity from consequence-based religions, from the rigid stupidity of belief in opposites, the fundamental inability to understand the flexible nature of truth. That was what could save humanity, maybe the only thing that could, because the realization that everyone was wrong also meant that everyone could be right. . . Symmetra would change the meaning of spirituality.”

Intriguing, yes? You can see what’s at stake in this book, right? So, despite a plot that takes up the screwball antics surrounding global political machinations, the White House, spies, and private islands, there’s a philosophical conundrum at its heart. Though Symmetra is presented vaguely like a Magic 8 Ball, it is also like the Ark à la Indiana Jones. Yeah, it might be construed as anti-evangelical. But let’s be honest: right now, in America, the evangelical church has rendered itself out-of-touch, a little mean-spirited, jingoistic, and in pursuit of a bottom dollar-defined line. And I say this as one associated with evangelicalism. Baumeister certainly offers up an implicit challenge.

Make no mistake about it. Baumeister writes well. There’s quite a bit of dialogue—energetic, fast-paced, and character-oriented. There are colorful characters throughout—equipped with silver spoons and secret pasts. International espionage and old flames flicker. At times, he crafts pretty sentences with vibrant imagery, planting himself firmly on literary terrain. So, while we’re satirizing a mildly familiar reality, we’re also steeped in good storytelling.

With such a promising debut showcasing a range of literary talents, my guess is that we’ll see more from this author.

Jennifer Spiegel is the author of two books, The Freak Chronicles (stories) and Love Slave (a novel). She’s also half of the book-reviewing gig, Snotty Literati. Her website is at jenniferspiegel.com.

Kurt Baumeister: The TNB Self-Interview

Kurt Baumeister (KGB) vs. Kurt Baumeister’s Doppelganger (2.0)

 

Kurt Baumeister’s debut novel, a satirical spy thriller entitled Pax Americana (Stalking Horse Press), was released into the wild on March 15. Baumeister took a brief break from his whirlwind world tour to sit down with his double, Kurt Baumeister 2.0, aka The Creature, aka Baumeister’s Monster, aka The Baumonster, aka simply (and, finally, thank fucking god) 2.0. A wide-ranging, revealing, and at times shockingly adversarial discourse followed. Described by onlookers as something between the ravings of a preternaturally linguistic chimp with dual-personality disorder and a peyote-addled William F. Buckley sparring semi-verbally with a lobotomized Gore Vidal, a third, unnamed transcription agent was able to pen these notes prior to apprehension by the Trump Administration. Details of his or her stay at Guantanamo Bay may or may not be forthcoming. Baumeister and his double remain at large.

KGB:  Go on, ask me what the worst thing I’ve ever been called is.

 

2.0:      Fine. What’s the worst thing you’ve ever been called?

KGB:  Well, I don’t know about worst exactly, but one of the strangest was when someone called me a doppelganger.

 

2.O:     Conversationally?

KGB:  Right. Like, “You’re a goddam doppelganger, Kurt.”

 

2.0:      That’s…what that? Some D&D thingy, like a unicorn?

KGB:  The dictionary definition is “an apparition or double of a living person.”

 

2.0:      You are kinda pale. But it’s hard to believe someone actually came out and called you a ghost.

KGB:  They were drunk. I think they were implying I wasn’t a real person in some fundamental moral or ethical way.

 

2.0:      What if it was some sort of Germanic slur? Like, because of your name? Y’know, Kurt Baumeister.

KGB:  I do have a pretty Germanic name, but a xenophobic slur? That’s reading a lot into one word.

 

2.0:      But if he voted for Trump?

KGB:  I don’t think she did.

 

2.0:      Still, you never know, right?

KGB:  If you say so.

 

2.0:      Obviously, it scarred you.

KGB:  A little maybe. Mostly, it just struck me as completely bizarre. Still does. But…

 

2.0:      [raises an eyebrow] But, what? What’s the but?

KGB:  The but is that finally, after all these years, I think it’s working to my benefit.

 

2.0:      Oh?

KGB:  Well, I’m being interviewed by my actual doppelganger, right here, right now, right?

 

2.0:      Oh, I see what you did there. Very clever, Dr. Baumeister, very clever indeed. What if you’re my doppelganger, though? Have you considered that possibility?

KGB:  Not at all.

 

2.0:      You should. This could be a Catch-22 situation.

KGB:  What could be a Catch-22?

 

2.0:      This. Us. You know, like a conundrum: As in, am I the doppelganger, or are you?

KGB:  That’s not what a Catch-22 is. This is more a Chicken-and-Egg type thing.

 

2.0:      It’s confusing, whatever it is.

KGB:  Like a conundrum?

 

2.0:      [purses lips] Enough small talk. Tell me about this debut novel of yours, this so-called Pax Americana.

KGB:  Nice segue.

 

2.0:      Thanks.

KGB:  I was being facetious.

 

2.0:      Just answer the fucking question.

KGB:  Well, Pax Americana is not so-called at all. It’s a real, live, honest-to-goodness novel. I guess it’s a literary thriller of sorts. More specifically, a satirical spy novel.

 

2.0:      So, it’s funny?

KGB:  God, I hope so. But I think it’s serious, too; or, at least, it makes some serious points.

 

2.0:      Such as?

KGB:  Basically, it’s about American excess, the way we allow Christianity, capitalism, and militarism to run amok, imperil the higher ideals that we, at least in our secular “sacred” texts (the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence), aspire to. Freedom, liberty, peace: those sorts of things.

 

2.0:      So, what, you’re like some pacifist-atheist-communist?

KGB:  I’m agnostic with respect to religion. I suppose that’s the one of those I come closest to. Of course, I do feel that America’s become too militaristic. And I feel capitalism doesn’t work everywhere every time. Basically, any -ism doesn’t always work.

 

2.0:      Examples?

KGB:  Healthcare. Education. Prisons. Even the military. Really, anything that’s supposed to serve a public good. Capitalism’s great advantage is that it streamlines interactions, focuses people on the profit motive. But if you’re pursuing ends that aren’t only served by profit—health, the acquisition of knowledge, the dispensation of justice—capitalism can do more harm than good. It can make you focus on profit when you should be focusing on another goal entirely.

 

2.0:      But you said it was funny.

KGB:  What, the book?

 

2.0:      [nods]

KGB:  I said I hoped it was.

 

2.0:      [frowns] Well, this doesn’t sound very…um…

KGB:  OK, look, it’s about a near future in which Christianity and capitalism have gone haywire, completely taken over America. The hero, antihero really, is a young agent with the Internal Defense Bureau named Tuck Squires. He’s rich, handsome, tall, thin. He’s everything you’d want if you were constructing a secret agent in a meth lab. Ultimately, though, he’s a bit of a bumbler. And he’s an evangelical Christian who’s somehow reconciled his faith with uber-Capitalism. Meaning—

 

2.0:      Meaning he’s a perfect symbol for what America could, or maybe already has, become.

KGB:  Right. He’s teamed with a much older former superspy named Ken Clarion. They take off in search of a kidnapped scientist, the developer of a breakthrough personal spirituality program called Symmetra. The kidnapper is an evangelical fast food mogul named Ravelton Parlay, founder of a very large, very Christian chain called Righteous Burger. Heavenly Halfstones with Cheese, Turbo-Cokes, Freedom Fries, Catfish Poppers all of it served up with live, holographic, individualized sermons from Righteous Burger’s celebrity spokescreature, an anthropomorphized lamb named Timmy who wears a cape and Parlay thinks of as a son. Timmy’s catch phrase is “Kingdom Come, yum, yum, yum!”

 

2.0:      OK, that does sound pretty funny.

KGB:  Thanks.

 

2.0:      In a really dark, twisted fucking way.

KGB:  Right, I already said thanks. No need to gush. So, I’m planning on writing two more of these books. The next will most likely be titled Virtual Jerusalem. The third is tentatively called The Gods of Heroes and Villains. I haven’t decided what I’ll call the trilogy, if I’ll even give it a proper trilogy-ish name. Perhaps just Pax Americana.

 

2.0:      So, the other books are already written?

KGB:  Yes and no. I don’t have them assembled in their final form but I initially envisioned Pax Americana as a much longer novel. This was a few years ago when I was first submitting it to agents. So, I have hundreds (well over a thousand) pages of material that will figure in the other two books.

 

2.0:      What are you working on now if not the sequel?

KGB:  I’ve got another novel I’ve been working on, one totally unrelated to Pax Americana. It’s a first person mythocomic crime fantasy I’ve been calling Loki’s Gambit. The narrator is Loki, which is a lot of fun for me. I’ve always had an easier time writing in first person. For some reason, though, that wasn’t quite right for Pax Americana. The twist with Loki’s Gambit, one of them, is that Loki’s good. The book also has something to do with the current state of politics in the West, the way authoritarianism seems to be gunning for a new moment in the sun. There’s history, Nazi gold, a little magic, a Norn named Sunshine, a dog named Fenris, giant kings who’ve become little people, and a cast of characters drawn largely from Norse mythology. Odin, Thor, etc., etc.

 

2.0:      So, like American Gods?

KGB:  Maybe a little, but I hope not too much. It all hinges on the Norse gods having helped Hitler in his plan for world domination. Loki refused to go along and for that he was banished to Midgard (our world). When Hitler killed himself, the rest of the gods lost most of their power and fell to earth. That’s the ground situation. I’m also about halfway done with a poetry collection.

 

2.0:      You enjoy that, working on multiple projects at the same time?

KGB:  Yes. I guess I’m a little scatter-brained. It seems to be how I read as well. Not always, but often. When I’m working up my review column, I read several (or more) books at once.

 

2.0:      Your column here at TNB?

KGB:  Right. And, just FYI for anyone wondering, the only editorial control I exert at TNB is over my own column, Review Microbrew. This interview, for example, will be edited by one of TNB’s fine editors. And I can only hope they’ll find a way to make both me and my doppelganger sound a little less insane.

 

2.0:      Hey, that’s me you’re talking about.

KGB:  Exactly.

 

Kurt Baumeister is not a real doctor. 2.0 is, however, a real doppelgänger.

An Excerpt from Pax Americana (The Nervous Breakdown)

Commercial Wisdom

 

Ravelton Parlay was a wealthy man and a rational, even calculating one. But that didn’t mean he was beyond belief either in theory or in practice. The guy had faith in spades. Not to mention diamonds, clubs, and hearts. The truth was Parlay had an entire deck of faith—not just in God, but in himself, Capitalism, and America—the sort of clean, clear, core belief structure that had propelled him to greatness and promised to keep him going, to keep him growing ever greater, into eternity and beyond. Of course, Parlay prayed. As a creature of belief—not to mention habit—he prayed morning and night, noon and midday. Parlay prayed working in his office and napping in his dayroom, sitting down to meals and standing up to scream. He prayed in the back seats of limos and the staterooms of yachts, as he strolled the grounds of Bayousalem or hustled through a Righteous Burger photo op. Parlay prayed for his employees, his servants, and even his fourth wife, the beautiful, sexually elusive Kelly Anne. He prayed for the smiley little black kids in Africa, the wizened Asian herdsmen in the Himalayas, and the endangered species —including the ones that weren’t even furry or cute. Heck, Parlay even prayed for the entire world once in a while. Most often, though, Parlay prayed for his beloved country. He prayed for America.

It had been two solid years of Raglan’s Reign of Terror. Massive defense cuts and welfare spending, increased taxes on capital dispensers and wealth stewards, wars on Christianity and the Second Amendment. People had even begun to wonder whether Raglan had an agenda beyond the earthly, whether his evil was supernatural. Was he maybe, possibly, the Antichrist? Parlay didn’t exactly subscribe to this theory, but he would never go so far as to rule it out. Even if it wasn’t true the line of thought was useful in mobilizing allies to his cause.

As he looked back on it from the fall of ’34, Parlay wondered if the rumors about Raglan being the Antichrist could have started sooner, maybe during the ’32 campaign, and if they had, maybe the outcome of that campaign would have been different. Maybe if Cherrystone believed he was up against the physical embodiment of evil Parlay would have had better luck convincing him to do something about it.

“You have to embrace your faith, Mr. President. That’s the only way.”

“That’s not what the voters want, Parlay. Not after Iran.”

“But the wars were so good to us. They can’t have forgotten the last thirty years so quickly.”

“Meh,” said the President. He sounded as if he’d already accepted his fate. The apathy practically made Parlay want to scream. This was the President, of course, a real, Traditionalist, Republican President so he wasn’t actually going to scream. But that didn’t mean he was about to accept quitting either.

“Well, what does President Cheney have to say about it?”

“Cheney?” Cherrystone practically snarled. “Don’t talk to me about Cheney. Bastard won’t even do a joint appearance at this point. And he’s the one who started it.”

“Started what?”

“Started Iran.”

“No?”

“Absolutely. Put it in play as he was walking out the door.”

“I had no idea, Mr. President.”

“Oh, what can I say, Parlay? The wars have taken their toll. Even with SDI, muscular foreign policy may just be a thing of the past.”

Parlay gasped.

“What was that?”

“Nothing, Mr. President. A bird flew in the window.”

“A bird?”

“Just…it’s nothing, sir.”

Cherrystone paused, chewed on the answer for a few seconds. “Listen, Parlay, I appreciate your support. I mean, let’s make sure we keep those checks coming.” He laughed. “Who knows? We may still pull this one out.”

“That’s the spirit, sir.”

“But I’ve got a tee time at Congressional in forty-two minutes. I really should be going.”

“Goodbye, Mr. President.”

Rather than the sort of fond, fawning farewell he was used to, all Parlay got was dead air. He pulled the antique, red receiver from his ear, turned to glare at the thing, the priceless nuclear hotline Reagan had once used to stare down the Russians —metaphorically at least.

Parlay wanted his money back, every darned cent he’d wasted on that feckless fool, this supposed President, Jackson Cherrystone. He wanted a new candidate, someone he could believe in like Reagan or W or Cheney, someone who’d do right by God and America. And he knew that wasn’t about to happen. It was too late.

His blood pressure rising even as darkness seemed to gather around him, the room practically swam with heat. Parlay’s mind filling with a mix of rage and hate and fear of loss, his thoughts turned to the rasping, armored visage of Darth Vader. Which made Parlay even angrier because he absolutely hated Star Wars, let alone the thought of himself in association with its asthmatic symbol of ultimate evil. He slammed down the receiver, instantly regretting the damage he might have done to the priceless, plastic artifact. At that moment, Ravelton Parlay wanted to cry.

The rest of the fall saw the gap between Raglan and Cherrystone widen, Parlay’s ability to contact the President diminishing so much that in the campaign’s final days his sole alternative became prayer, his only hope that God would dispense a mighty miracle to save America, the world and even Parlay’s erstwhile ally, Jackson Cherrystone.

That didn’t happen. Cherrystone lost the Presidency in one horrible, blinding night of racing vote counts, 3-D maps, and crowing heads; took the sort of cross-demographical thunder dumping that left Parlay considering drink for the first time in many moons. Fortunately for Parlay, that wasn’t the end of things. God had other plans for him, and they didn’t include OD-ing on Old Grandad.

When Parlay looked back on things, from the fast-approaching future, he would wonder at the Lord’s power and grace, the fact that God’s elegant plan to save America had already been in motion the night Cherrystone lost the Presidency. More than that, he would smile at the poetry of the new President, Raglan’s, demise, the fact that it would come from within his own Administration.

 

 

Besides its role as a monument to God, Parlay saw his estate, Bayousalem, as a sort of temple to America. Set on land that had once been part of a great national forest, Parlay’s home was modeled on the White House—the lawns, the wings, the general shape; not to mention all the marble and security. There were, however, significant differences. Besides having a completely different interior floorplan and being approximately three times the square footage as the shack at 1620 Pennsylvania Avenue, Bayousalem’s main house was gray, not white; a shade that managed somehow to seem sooty and pearly, dirty and luxurious, all at the same time.

Inside, Bayousalem was stuffed with Americana—fabulous “lost” oil paintings and framed parchments, gleaming medals and ornate uniforms, military maps, ceremonial swords, stovepipe hats, corncob pipes, stuffed animal heads, and even the odd cigar store Indian—nowhere more so than at its cool, shadowy center, the Inner Sanctum. This was Parlay’s command post, the place from which he ran the day-to-day of his vast, ever-growing Righteous Burger empire; where he also oversaw, as of late, a little operation he’d decided to codename Virtual Jerusalem.

“I told you we’d be in contact when there was something to discuss, Brother Ali, not before,” Parlay said this in a sugary half-whisper, one that effectively masked his real annoyance.

While fielding surprise calls about top secret plots wasn’t something he relished, the fact that the other party was Abdul Karim Ali, Security Counsel to the Supreme Leader of the Pan-Islamic Federation—thus, the primary go-between to one of his principal clients—meant Parlay needed to remain cordial, if only to lower the boom that much harder later.

“I understand that, Presence. What you don’t seem to understand is that His Holiness wants fresh details, and I have none to give him. He grows more anxious by the hour.”

“And?” Parlay snapped, still speaking in that same sweet voice as he edged forward in his chair.

This was something Parlay was particularly good at: conveying multiple verbal messages simultaneously, messages that would often bounce around in the head of the intended for hours—at times even days—before they were decoded, often subconsciously. As far as the current conversation went, the messages were these: I love you. I’m Muslim. I hate you. I’m Christian. I’ll ruin you. I’ll make you rich. You’re doing the right thing. And you are going to Hell.

“And?” continued Ali, no doubt conscious of only the first two. “And…you have never

seen His Holiness anxious, Presence. Broken furniture, shattered dishes, wives beaten within an inch of death.”

“Literally?” Parlay replied, shocked at the specifics. Sure, he might have imagined His Holiness lacked self-control. He was a heathen, wasn’t he? But the details were amazing in their violence, their barbarism.

“What?”

“The wives?”

“This is in keeping with the Law of Allah, is it not?”

“Right, yes, of course, brother. I must admit to practicing a little softer approach with my own wives.”

“As do I, of course,” Ali replied.

“But one can understand how the Supreme Leader could grow frustrated with so many of them to deal with. All that talking. All that nonsense.”

Ali chuckled. “Twenty-three is quite a few.”

“Seven is enough for me.”

“I have eleven but believe you me, Presence, I understand your economy. To see the Supreme Leader discipline his women is not a pretty sight.”

“Hmm. Well, we certainly don’t want His Holiness to feel inconvenienced by any of this.” God help the damage he’d do.

“Precisely! You understand!” Ali sighed, pleased with his apparent accomplishment. He had an ally, a champion, someone he could believe in. “Now, why don’t we start with your name? His Holiness is particularly keen on fleshing that out.”

“My name?” Parlay feigned shock, flashed a genuine smile as his gaze settled back on the one-way TeleView screen routed through the red phone. There, Ali’s beardy, shemaghed visage hovered beneath a several-inch-long chain of numbers and letters, the readout from Parlay’s scrambler, ending in the amusing abbreviation, AKA.

Parlay loved it when the heathens got cocky. The fact that he could make them feel good, string them along only to rub their noses in their lack of negotiating power, was one of his very favorite things about Virtual Jerusalem. The amount of freedom Parlay felt in this—well, it was like taking down a company you didn’t even want. To recall a pithy bit of commercial wisdom from his fifties, the feeling was priceless.

“You know you can’t have that, Ali.”

“The Angel then, or these operatives you keep referring to, the Natural, the Viking, the Zulu. Just give me something to go on, something to give His Holiness.”

“And what would the Supreme Leader do with this information?”

“Do? He would do nothing of course.”

“Then why does he need it?”

Ali’s breath caught, his voice descending conspiratorially, “One does not ask the Supreme Leader such questions. He wants to know what he wants to know, not what you or I want him to know.”

“Listen, Ali, you may be my brother in Allah…” Parlay paused to shake his head at the repetition, and even more at the meaning of the statement. The things he did for the Lord. “But you’re not going to get any more information out of me.”

“But Pres—”

“Except for one thing.” Parlay turned from the TeleView, focused on the giant wall screen at the other end of the Sanctum. There, he found his trump, Diana Scorsi.

She lay sleeping, Parlay’s #1, the Natural, Jack Justice, sitting in a chair by her bedside, intent on the pages of his simple study Bible. The lights low, a fireplace just beyond, lit and flickering, the scene might almost have seemed romantic had Justice not been armed with a high caliber handgun and wearing a George W. Bush mask.

“The question isn’t how anymore, Ali. It’s whether you’re in or out?”

Ali clucked his tongue and paused, perhaps unsure of where things were going, except that the destination was not a friendly one. “Presence, we are in of course. How much longer will it be? The Supreme Leader is anxious to test the technology.”

“Not long now. There’s still the matter of coming to terms, though.”

“I thought we had.”

“Refresh my memory.”

Ali paused. For a few seconds, all Parlay heard was his breathing, heavy and quick. Obviously, Ali was surprised by this latest twist, perhaps even dismayed. Which was a fair reaction since the two men had agreed on a final number less than two weeks before. None of which meant Parlay was going to let up on him.

Parlay stayed quiet, careful to preserve his power over the conversation. Thirty seconds later, Ali continued as Parlay had known he would, “The figure was one half trillion U.S., in ragged numbers, routed, sub-routed, and split between the million accounts. Do you not remember?”

“Ah, no, I do…it’s just that…well, how to put this? The Angel wants more.”

“More?”

Parlay waited. The Angel was Dr. Morton School, Deputy Director of the National Science Federation. School was the disgruntled egghead who’d brought Parlay the Symmetra deal two years earlier, but he didn’t want more money. He just wanted to hurt Raglan. Parlay was the one who wanted more money, among other things.

“How much more?” Ali continued.

“Your best offer should be sufficient.”

“We already gave you our best offer.”

“A better best offer then.”

“Better best? I don’t even know what that means.”

“It means surprise me.”

“Surprise…This is a betrayal, Presence. The Supreme Leader will have my head.”

“Oh, please. We both know you’re safe, brother. Just convince him to improve the offer. No doubt, there will be a special bonus for you when he does.”

“From the Supreme Leader? I think not. Unless you count keeping my head.”

Parlay laughed. “I was speaking of something in my sphere of influence. Call it a finder’s fee.”

Ali lowered his voice again, but this time Parlay could almost hear the smile. “How much of a finder’s fee would we be talking about?”

“Mmm…” Parlay paused. He reached down, brushed invisible lint from his spotless, white lapel. By the time he looked back at the TeleView, Parlay barely noticed Ali.

Sure, his partner was still there, waiting. Parlay could make out his silhouette clearly enough. His focus wasn’t on it though. Another image had attracted Parlay’s gaze…

The white hair, the deep tan, the face that barely looked sixty—all of it the result of the hours a day spent with various trainers, aestheticians, and other handlers. Parlay was still incredibly handsome, and he knew it. In fact, sitting there, staring at himself, Parlay couldn’t help thinking he looked just a little like an angel looming over Ali’s shoulder.

“Presence, are you still there?”

“More money than you’ve ever dreamed of,” Parlay added nonchalantly. He’d learned long ago that the most important thing to remember when you were negotiating a deal was to act like you believed what you said, especially when you didn’t.

“Ah…Now, I begin to understand the contingencies of which you speak. I will do my best, Presence.”

“Don’t take too long, Ali. You know, tick tock, tick tock.”

“As you say, brother. As-Salāmu `alaykumu.”

“Wa `alaykumu s-salāmu wa rahmatu l-lāhi wa barakātuh, brother.”

The TeleView flashed to black. Parlay returned the red phone to its cradle. He nodded and smiled, satisfied with how the call had gone, particularly the way it had ended. He leaned back in his desk chair and put up his feet, ran his hand across the surface of his desk, the beloved battlefield secretary that had been Andrew Jackson’s. As he did, Parlay imagined the battles that went with each bullet hole or sword nick, the knocks and gouges acquired carting it from one field of carnage to the next. He imagined it all as a sort of tactile tapestry, a record of one small part of American history.

Parlay’s grin soon faded though. He’d found the v-shaped gash that had been his favorite detail once upon a time. He’d constructed an entire story around it, one of a Seminole brave attempting to assassinate Old Hickory, but dying instead on the end of his saber. Lately, however, the spot seemed only to remind him of something completely different.

Kelly Anne had become too comfortable with her position. She’d begun to think that Parlay needed her, that she couldn’t be replaced. She was withholding herself, had been for months now. And even at his advanced age, Parlay had needs. He had desires. Desires that had a lot more to do with availability than consummation.

Kelly Anne had seemed so perfect once upon a time. That first night he’d seen her gyrating on the sidelines at the Saints game. That tight little black and gold number. Her body round and lean in just the right places. All that beautiful auburn hair shaking behind her like a fox’s foxy little tail. Pretty soon, Parlay was telling Martha to get out of Bayousalem, screaming at her to never come back. And she never did. Parlay’s lawyers were too good, their prenup too sound for Martha to be able to make any real trouble. But it wasn’t working out with Kelly Anne either. And Parlay was growing restless, beginning to look for the woman who would replace his fourth wife. Which brought his thoughts back to Diana Scorsi. He hit the preset for the cell chip in Justice’s ear, rose and walked towards the wall screen.

“Presence?” Justice responded with a start.

“How’s the interrogation going, son?”

“I was waiting for you.”

“Why?”

“What?”

“It’s a simple question, Natural. I asked why.”

“You said you wanted to run the questioning.”

“Oh, I couldn’t possibly have said that.”

“Really?”

“You’ve got the experience, don’t you?”

Justice’s experience amounted to six hours in the Iraq War, at the end of which the wrong imam lay dead and Corporal Jack Justice was well on his way to being Former Corporal Jack Justice. Still, that was way more interrogation experience than Parlay himself had—unless you counted board meetings, and you really couldn’t. At least not for these purposes.

“I guess. I just…I’m sure you said you wanted to be involved.”

“Never mind, Natural. Just wake her.”

“Yes, Presence.”

Parlay watched as Justice stood, W’s decisive grin trembling with the effort. He claimed a hypo from the nightstand, tapped the plunger, and slipped the silver tip into Scorsi’s beautiful, lithe arm.

Seconds passed then her eyelids began to flutter. A few more and her eyes came alive like the work of God they were. Light blue and icy, they gave her face an alien, angelic quality, one that was only augmented by the prominence of her cheekbones, the way they swept up and outwards, almost like a dual staircase in some fine, Antebellum mansion. The overall effect was to make Scorsi seem both more and less than human—not just otherworldly but ethereal or spectral, untouchable, insubstantial. With her brilliance and her will, she would be a prize, no question; something far beyond Kelly Anne. First things first, though.

“Miss Scorsi,” Parlay said.

“Mister…”

“Presence. Just Presence will be fine.”

“You’re in charge.”

“In charge? Oh, you need to put that contentiousness completely out of your mind, Miss Scorsi. We’re here to work together, to be friends.”

“This is about Symmetra?”

“Of course.”

She rubbed her temples. “Look, we’ve got a massive mistake here. You guys think Symmetra’s something it’s not. It’s a research program, nothing more.”

“Research into religion?”

“Metaphysics, whatever you want to call it.”

“How about if I want to call it religion?”

She worried the inside of her lip, waited.

“The point, Miss Scorsi, is that we know all about your technology. We know that if you reversed a few things, if you restricted the database to say, one religion’s teachings, you’d have a pretty effective evangelism program.”

“Hallelujah,” Justice sang.

She looked at him and sneered, an entirely appropriate reaction since Justice did, in that moment, look a lot like a nitwit. “You might think you know.”

Justice nodded.

“But you don’t,” she added.

Justice shook his head.

Before Justice could make himself look like any more of a dolt, Parlay broke back in, “Oh, but we do know. We’ve done our research. We have our sources.”

“Who? What sources?”

Parlay heard something in her voice, something inside her beginning to give, to break. “So you admit I’m right? Symmetra can be changed? It can be turned to the service of the Lord?”

“I’m not admitting anything. Except one thing.” She continued, “Even if that were possible, I’d never be involved in it. It would be brainwashing.”

Parlay smiled. He knew he had her, knew he’d walked her at least that far down the road she needed to travel. He could ease up for a little while, try to lull her into the illusion that control, for her, was still a possibility. He wagged his finger at the screen. “Ah, but that’s where you’re wrong, Miss Scorsi. It only counts as brainwashing if it’s not the truth.”

 

Adapted from Pax Americana, by Kurt Baumeister, Copyright © 2017 by Kurt Baumeister. With the permission of the publisher, Stalking Horse Press.

Largehearted Boy Book Notes – Kurt Baumeister “Pax Americana”

http://www.largeheartedboy.com/blog/archive/2017/04/book_notes_kurt_2.html

April 6, 2017

Book Notes – Kurt Baumeister “Pax Americana”

Pax Americana

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Kurt Baumeister’s literary thriller Pax Americana is a brilliantly imagined satire.

Sean Beaudoin wrote of the book:

“If there is to be an American peace, it’s certainly not going to come on the pages of this lit match of a novel. Kurt Baumeister has fashioned exactly the old school pre-and-post Bond techno X-travaganza everyone bored with explorations of the Louvre has been waiting for. Pax Americana is both dark satire and deeply satisfying, an adrenaline rush that runs through suspect politics, spirituality software, and the sacredly profane.It’s a blast. Buy it now.”


In his own words, here is Kurt Baumeister’s Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel Pax Americana:


To people who don’t write satire, it may seem easy. It’s just jokes, right? Or not even that, but painfully dry demi-jokes? Constant irony, mistimed whimsy, humor too smitten with itself to know better. Yeah, yeah, the world is a mess. So, what? Always has been. Always will be. Tell me something new.

The thing people miss is that the satirist must be (or, at least, try to be) funny and serious at the same time. The balancing act can be extremely difficult, difficult enough it usually fails. To do it effectively, you must be willing to look at everything—the world, its things, its creatures, and most of all yourself—with something like love and contempt simultaneously.

Pax Americana is a satirical take on the spy novel. Meaning it’s both a mockery of and an homage to the form. For me, there’s one writer of espionage thrillers, and one hero, who tower above the rest. The writer, Ian Fleming; the hero, James Bond. Now, I’ve read several Bond novels, the first of them in a bunch when I was a kid, then refreshing my memory of a few (notably Goldfinger and From Russia With Love) over the last several years. The most memorable things about the Bond books, other than Bond himself, of course, are the exotic locals, femme fatales, and larger-than-life nemeses that seem to fill his world. These qualities exist across the books and the movies. One that doesn’t, though, is the music. The Bond song has little to do with the Bond books, but it does provide a bridge between Pax Americana and my playlist.
“Live and Let Die” by Wings

Whether this is just an incredibly clever fifty-plus-year marketing campaign or something more, the Bond songs are significant to our culture and, at least for me, “Live and Let Die” is one of, if not the greatest. From the wistful vocals and gentle piano of its beginning to the deadly shamble it reaches and maintains, this is an epic rock song. The first of two classic tracks for which I spent time deciding between the famous original and the only slightly less famous cover that came decades later.

On the face of it, the arrangements seem similar between the Wings version and the cover Guns ‘N Roses did a few decades later, and the overall effect the versions go for, barely controlled musical chaos, is similar. Similar, but not the same. And if I must choose, and, indeed, I must, I’ll take the original.

Listening to the two versions one after the other, you get the feeling Axl scream-singing the words acapella would only marginally add to or take away from the Guns version. McCartney’s version on the other hand is more soulful; ironically, more cohesive and rangier at the same time; vocals and instrumentation both necessary for the overall effect. Comparatively, G N R’s instrumentation sounds simplistic, tinny and thin in a way, for all the growling of Slash’s guitar.

Maybe it’s the fact that Guns were just too far beyond chaos as a musical effect. Maybe they were chaos in a way that leaves someone else’s elegant descent into musical entropy sounding weak in their hands. Or maybe it’s the added poignancy, particularly in the beginning of the McCartney version, his willingness to work with rather than overwhelm the music that make his original shine, still after forty years.

“Price Tag” by Jessie J (featuring B.o.B)

“Price Tag” captures one of the ironies at the heart of Pax Americana, but more importantly America and humanity. Deeply infectious and superficially positive, there’s more beneath the surface of “Price Tag” and a lot of it’s dark.

“It’s not about the money money money / We don’t need your money money money / We just wanna make the world dance / Forget about the price tag / Ain’t about the uh cha-ching cha-ching / Ain’t about the yeah b-bling b-bling”

Jessie J’s delivery of these lines is somewhere between careless and jaded, pointing to a reality that’s confirmed by the video’s dizzying array of costume changes and the ubiquitous “b-bling b-bling” and “cha-ching cha-ching” we’re shown in spite of what we’re told. Ultimately, the protestations are hollow. It really is about the “money money money.” But, what isn’t?

If you’re trying to escape hypocrisy, humanity’s not a good place to do it. And, despite “Price Tag’s” hypocrisy, I guess, or at least I hope, Pax Americana has some of its attributes. I hope readers enjoy it, that they get swept up in the story, enjoy the plot, and find it a fast read. But I also hope they take away a hunger for greater truth, even though that hunger will invariably prove impossible to sate.

“Perfect World” by Liz Phair

Liz Phair’s whitechocolatespaceegg is one of my desert island discs. Though, maybe in these dystopian, Trumpian times it would be better to call it one of my “post-apocalyptic” discs. Call it what you want: There’s not a bad song on whitechocolatespaceegg, from the post-consumerist grandeur of “Polyester Bride,” to the lurching madness of “Johnny Feelgood” and the mysterious, acoustic kookiness of “Uncle Alvarez.” But the track I come back to most often is “Perfect World.”

“No need for Lucifer to fall if he’d learned to keep his mouth shut” is the payoff line. That’s quintessential Liz Phair, conveying a universal truth with sardonic simplicity. But that’s not all there is here. The song’s narrator doesn’t have to be Phair, but it could be, and certainly, if it were, the irony of a woman as beautiful as Liz Phair envying the “girls who live inside your world…just sitting next to mortals makes their skin crawl” is heavy. Ultimately, the song’s narrator, whether it’s Phair herself or a constructed character, feels a kinship with the fallen angel, Lucifer, in her realization of the universality, futility, and inescapability of envy.

“Salvation Serenade’ by Jehovah’s Wishlist (featuring Rake Pennirex)

Pax Americana opens with its antihero, Tuck Squires, on the way to work at the U.S. Internal Defense Bureau (ID). A sunny November morning, and Tuck heads down Constitution Avenue in his green, reptilian, convertible Epiphany, top down, heat cranked, music blaring, the stereo system putting out “Salvation Serenade,” the latest from an entirely fabricated band, Jehovah’s Wishlist. Their lead singer being an equally fabricated figure, The Angelic Assassin, Rake Pennirex.

I love making things up—part to most of the reason I’m a writer no doubt—from car brands to fictionalized movies and band names, actors and TV shows. So, it’s fitting that I start doing that on Page 1 of Pax Americana. I imagine Jehovah’s Wishlist as something like a cross between a Christian version of Arctic Monkeys and Creed’s nihilistic alter-ego. “Crunchy drums and martial guitars” is the way I describe them in Pax Americana—so basically punked-out Dominionist fascism, right? And who is Rake Pennirex? What does he look like? I’m thinking lots of black leather, long hair, and a crazy-thin moustache. And he’s British, definitely British.

“Made to be Remade” by Missionary Situation Reversal

The second of three fictional songs on my playlist, parts of this are sung to Dr. Diana Scorsi, the genius computer scientist who develops the “God software” at the center of Pax Americana. This happens early in the book and it closes a chapter. No doubt there’s a cinematic quality here, the idea that the characters are providing soundtrack to the novel. (See “Live and Let Die” above.)

“And I can still hear that old choir of angels / Singin’ ‘bout the End of Days / And I can still hear my old preacher screamin’ / Screamin’ like the wrath of God / Screamin’ out the wrath of God / Made to be remade, ooh-ooh-ooh…”

As discussed in the book, Missionary Situation Reversal, MSR, is a “God pop” band that Diana mistakes for country. Which horrifies the people she’s with, the men who are singing to her. The song’s significance will become clear later in the book, but in addition to alluding to a certain locale, it touches on the theme of gender imbalance (and even misogyny) in many of history’s great religions.

“The Man Who Sold the World” by Nirvana

Pax Americana’s villain, or antivillain, Ravelton Parlay, may be my favorite character to write. So much of Parlay’s world is either comedy, satire, or both; but when I try to think about him seriously, the refrain from this song comes to mind. At times, I can almost hear it when I’m writing him. It makes me sad. I think that if Parlay could hear it, too, he’d imagine I was likening him to Judas, and I probably am.

This is the second track on which I debated between an original and its most famous cover. Yes, Bowie recently died, which makes it sort of sacrilegious to choose Nirvana’s version. But, at least on that score, Kurt Cobain’s life is a tragedy that stacks up to any, even two decades after his suicide.

I like the instrumentation of the Nirvana version better. Which is probably just an example of more organic music catching up with the trippy studio tricks in Bowie’s version. The stripped-down version works for me. No, Cobain’s not nearly the pure singer Bowie is and perhaps this is another example of personal taste trumping good sense. In terms of having a distinctive voice, you really can’t make a case that McCartney measures up to Axl either.

“If God Will Send His Angels” by U2

Listening to this song, I’m struck by how significant the lyrics are to me and how important they’ve wound up being to Pax Americana. This shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. Anyone who knows me well knows that U2 are my favorite band. No, that’s not cool to say these days, and their last album was a bit of a mess. Still, in writing this, I actually found myself pulling the entire sheet of lyrics, then editing down to what seemed a reasonable level; which still amounted to about half the song. Nothing remotely like a reasonable level.

“It’s the blind leading the blond / It’s the stuff, it’s the stuff of country songs”

Pax Americana is based on the premise that America swerved right under George W. Bush (which it did) then just kept going and going and going. And there’s little as generally right—and mainstream white—as country music. Now, I don’t particularly like country music, but I can get into Bono’s lyrics as he simultaneously makes fun of it and himself for going down this road. Yet, somehow, he still manages to touch on the fact that there may be some legitimate soul in country. You have to listen deeper into this song but the country music theme returns—”it’s the stuff, it’s the stuff of country song, yeah but I guess that’s somethin’ to go on”— their expression different, their meaning more profound.

Speaking of profound, this line:

“God’s got his phone off the hook, babe / Would he even pick up if he could?”

Rather than the presumption that U2’s lyrics are overtly Christian, their lyrics have always been about the contradictions of faith, the push and pull between the fraud religion often represents and the idea of actually doing good in the world.

Here, most of a verse:

“It’s the blind leading the blond / It’s the cops collecting for the cons / So where is the hope and / Where is the faith and the love? / What’s that you say to me / Does love light up your Christmas tree? / The next minute you’re blowing a fuse / And the cartoon network turns into the news”

The last line about the cartoon network turning into the news speaks to the absurdity of reality, and the plausibility of surrealism, a notion that seems very important in our current political environment in America, a place where facts, logic, and learning seem now to be under daily assault from the highest, most powerful places in our government.

And finally, this:

“Jesus never let me down / You know Jesus used to show me the score / Then they put Jesus in show business / Now it’s hard to get in the door”

Much of Pax Americana is about separating religious dogma from the values necessary to do good. It’s about the absurdity of religious fundamentalism of any stripe. Though there can be no absolute certainty that one of the extreme fundamentalist interpretations of religion isn’t correct, the preponderance of evidence suggests that no fundamentalist view can be true since that would preclude every other religion being even a little bit right.
The notion of an omnipotent, benevolent God that so many religions posit would seem to be at odds with the idea that God is some glorified accountant, keeping score, consigning the spiritual failures—which let’s be honest, is most of us—to an eternity of torment. If anything is true about religion or spirituality, logic dictates that beliefs can only be true in their commonalities (e.g. The Golden Rule). This is what’s at the heart of Diana Scorsi’s software, Symmetra.

“Lambs to the Lord” by Tabby Arnesse

Tabby Arnesse is the last recording star I made up for Pax Americana. The prototypical young, American pop chanteuse, Tabby’s one of those gratingly ubiquitous kids who seem to pop up (pun unintended, but accepted) from time to time. Here, though, I’ve layered on America’s mélange of Christianity and capitalism gone nuts; and, voila, a uniquely annoying girlchild you don’t even have to see to believe. This, from Tabby’s latest #1 “Lambs to the Lord”:

“Oh, God is love, can’t you see / He rains blessings down on me / Like lambs to the Lord / With fleece as white as snow / Someday God will call us home / Someday God will call us home.”

“Lambs to the Lord” is set to the tune of “Knick Knack Paddy Whack” (aka “This Old Man”), and shows up at a gallingly inappropriate time in the text, bedeviling an already bedeviled Dr. Diana Scorsi and resulting in pained singing and lumbering dancing from a certain gigantic, evangelical henchman.

“Born in the USA” by Bruce Springsteen

Perhaps the most misunderstood song in the history of rock ‘n roll—so misunderstood the very misunderstanding is famous—”Born in the USA” may be the best example in this whole playlist of the duality of intent that goes with satire. “Born in the USA” has to be anthemic. It has to sound like a sort of love letter to America, a chest-thumping, fist-bumping apple-pie buy- Chevrolet barbecued chicken of a song, and it even is on some level. Its true meaning, though, as a song of men who gave themselves to their country and were reviled in return is inescapable if you spend more than a second thinking about the lyrics.

“It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” by R.E.M.

In Melbourne, Victoria, a little more than a week before 9/11, I saw an Australian thrash band play a sped-up version of this. It may have been the most exciting (musical) two minutes of my life. Blundering around Oz, smoking and drinking and, at times, playing the stupid American, I had no idea what the U.S. and the world were in for in a few days’ time.

The events of 9/11/01 are certainly significant to Pax Americana, just as they are to history. But for that attack, America would have gone on believing itself immune to the terrorism of religious extremists. That didn’t happen of course.

I came into Boston’s Logan Airport on one of the planes that would, a week later, be used in the 9/11 attacks. I lived in Boston, so there was no chance I would have been heading to New York on one of those fateful trips, even if I’d returned a week later. Still, the proximity, remote though it is, shakes me to this day.

There’s a character who goes by the alias of The Angel in Pax Americana, one whose memories of 9/11 are my own. I still see those planes hitting the towers when I close my eyes. Maybe I shouldn’t be proud of this writing, but I am:

“Placid sky and reflective glass. Airplanes trapped in pitiless slow-mo hurtling again and again into those stoic towers of steel. Balls of fire flowering like midair cancers. Plumes of thick black gashing the sky. Broken buildings become the ruins of a once-great civilization. People, too, fall. Unable to bear the flames or the fear, they know they’re going to their deaths, but take that last step just the same. The lower air soon fills with smoke and debris, screams and dust and death. All of it the work of religion, the fantasy known as God…”

“Redemption Song” by Bob Marley

Hope doesn’t necessarily make sense, but I’ve still got it. And I…well, hope…that comes through in Pax Americana. Despite all the darkness, not only in our world, but in my novel, there’s no choice but to have hope. Nor is there any choice but to laugh at reality’s rules, things like mortality, the mystery of life after death, our dubious reliance on gods, and all the other uncertainties we live our lives around.

Having listened to Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” hundreds of times, my main takeaway is that you can’t fully control your reality, much as you might try. Maybe this desire to control, to make the world in one’s own image is at the heart of the philosophy held by various villains in Pax Americana, and maybe that philosophy more than anything else is what we have to fight against. There may not be a god—there almost certainly isn’t—but to the extent one exists, there’s no reason to believe it’s anything but good. I don’t mean there’s no logic in it. I mean that as Marley says, there’s no purpose in it.

“Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery / None but ourselves can free our minds / Have no fear for atomic energy / ‘Cause none of them can stop the time”

We make our own prisons. We put ourselves in them. These are horrible truths. The corollary truth is that we can free ourselves from our prisons. Even those of the horrible, hateful gods some of us create. In the end, we’re the only ones who can.
Kurt Baumeister and Pax Americana links:

the author’s website
excerpt from the book
excerpt from the book

Caroline Leavitt interview with the author
Christine Sneed interview with the author

An Excerpt from Pax Americana (Literary Orphans/The Tavern Lantern)

http://literaryorphans.org/ttl/pax-americana-kurt-baumeister/

Cambridge, Boston’s cross-river sister, home to Harvard, MIT, and the vast, resulting acreage of rundown real estate. Behind the wheel of a rented, blue Epic, Tuck was angling for the last space on the block, one directly in front of what looked like an old foundry. Built of red brick and ashen mortar, this was Symmetra HQ.

“That’s it?” asked Clarion, looking up from his nap.

“Must be. That’s the address.”

Darkened with pollution and faded with age the resulting shade of a building rose in four, thick, Dickensian stories. Taking up at least half its block, it dominated the squat Fifties brownstones that surrounded it. Their basements turned into Guitar Shacks, Koko Curry’s, and thrift stores masquerading as boutiques, who knew what lurked above? People? Squalor? Nothing? Whatever it was, the reality lay in the signs that defined it.

This was what had become of the post-war building boom and its architecture of triumph, and it was a sad thing to look at. Tuck never understood why they kept this stuff around, why they didn’t just tear it down and build something else. History was about preserving the past’s beauty, not maintaining some tired record of what had really happened. If he’d been running things, the entire block would have been bulldozed and rebuilt in glass—made into something shiny and splendid, something worth remembering.

“Doesn’t look much like a cutting-edge research facility.”

“Guess not,” Tuck responded, shaking the ice in his Mega-Sized Turbo-Coke from Righteous Burger.

He’d been surprised when he’d seen an RB along the highway—Here, in liberal Taxachusetts!—amazed when Clarion said they could stop and get something. Sure, Tuck hadn’t liked the fact that Clarion had refused to go in, that they’d missed out on sitting in a booth and getting an actual sermon from Timmy; but just getting to go to RB still felt like a little bit of heaven. It always did.

“In fact, it looks sort of like a—”

“Dump?” Tuck finished.

“Not exact—”

“Pit?”

Clarion laughed. “Not that either.”

“Haunted factory?”

“I thought you guys didn’t believe in ghosts.”

“Guys?”

“Christians.”

“Of course I don’t believe in ghosts, Clarion. What the flip?”

Clarion quirked another smile. “I was thinking it looks like a war zone but I guess haunted factory will do, sport.”

Tuck smiled, too. He knew he was wearing Clarion down by that point. That was how Tuck’s charm worked with atheists. His good humor and jokes always got to them eventually. That was his gift. But he would have been a poor Christian to court favor and use it for nothing but personal gain.

“If you ask me, Clarion, this only points out how bogus these corporate corruption claims are. Look at how bad business has gotten it in America. It’s like Christian Consumerism never even happened.” Tuck shook his cup as punctuation, took another long drag on the soda—the gravel and shake, the slurp, slurp, slurp.

He was speaking specifically of the House Commerce committee hearings, their time-wasting witch hunt against simple salt-of-the-Earth job creators who longed only to do their jobs, creating jobs. His Uncle Wadsworth, for example, DamberCorp’s COO, had been hauled up in the net of supposed corrupticans and abusicrats. He’d been exonerated of course. But poor, nervous Wadsworth was so shaken by the whole affair he’d fled to his island in the Maldives. No one had heard from him in weeks.

“If you say so, Squires. Just remember to let me do the talking once we get inside,” Clarion offered as they got out of the car.

“All of it?”

“Not all of it, kid. Just at first. I know these people, how they think.” He tapped his temple.

“You make them sound like some sort of mutant subspecies.”

“Have you been listening to my stories at all?”

“I’m trying not to,” Tuck said, though the truth was he had been listening the whole time—from the plane to the Quickie Rental counter to the hour-long traffic-intensive drive—his interest increasing as the day wore on.

Post So-Zu, Clarion had spent a year up in Boston trying to figure out what had happened. He’d been back many times since—some on business, some for murkier personal reasons. Tuck suspected this was code for a geriatric bimbo or two he had stashed in the liberal hinterlands. By that point, Tuck was convinced Clarion was a serious player. The way the flight attendants had catered to him, fawned over him. Tuck had wanted to say, “But look at him: he’s old!” more than once.

From Romney-Logan to the Ted Williams Tunnel to instructing Tuck on how to skirt some seemingly endless construction project Clarion kept referring to as the Big Shit, he obviously knew his way around the city. Worse than all that, Tuck was getting used to his cursing. Sure, the first few times Tuck had corrected him, but Clarion had just laughed and kept cussing. Ultimately after a couple “shits,” several “fucks” and countless “pussies,” “tits,” and “dicks” Tuck had given up, counted himself lucky that Clarion was, at least for now, avoiding taking the Lord’s name in vain.

“Place looks like a reform school,” Tuck said, looking up as he stepped onto the cracked concrete walk.

“Make up your mind, Squires.”

With Tuck a couple of feet back, Clarion moved towards the high, smoked doubles that made up the lobby entrance. They parted with a thwuck-ing sound as he drew close, echoed the thwuck as seconds later they closed behind Tuck. Inside, the ceilings were high, the walls painted a yolky yellow that had been big a few years earlier. Across the ceiling lay a spider-webbed network of wires and spotlights, the kind you’d expect in an InterTel studio. In the center of it all sat a little man at a low, octagonal desk. With clean-cut, graying hair and a jaw that was too big for the rest of his face, he looked like the sort of size-complex sufferer/faux do-gooder who’d take a job as a keeper of wayward boys, then beat up the kids when no one was looking.

“Guess you finally hit it on the head, Squires. It does look like a reform school in here,” Clarion said, adding, “But remember. I lead, you follow.”

Tuck nodded. For now, he thought.


Kurt Baumeister’s Pax Americana is available from Stalking Horse Press. Pick up your copy today!

The Nervous Breakdown’s Review Microbrew, Volume 7

By Kurt Baumeister for The Nervous Breakdown

May 01, 2017

Fiction Reviews

 

The Yellow House by Chiwan Choi

 

Choi

One part poetry, one part meditation on memory, Chiwan Choi’s third collection, The Yellow House, is a collage of captured instances, a tale of remembrances fragmented by time. A haunting, semi-hallucinatory trip through the immigrant’s perpetual no-man’s land—that zone between old home and new where people and places, love and death, happiness and sadness mingle—The Yellow House is about the struggle to belong, to reconcile the land of the past with that of the present. Seeing that reconciliation as a fundamentally impossible endeavor, the poet’s thoughts turn to forgetting one set of memories or the other, ultimately failing in this as anyone must.

Born as it is of a multitude of recollections, The Yellow House is not so cerebral as to be inaccessible. Far from it. This collection feels immediate, reads very much as the story of Choi’s life, often flirting with the mode of lyric memoir. There’s an acceptance of paradoxes here, the sort of contradictions that define everyone’s relationships with their parents. At once somehow god-like, everything to us, all parents ultimately fail us both while they are alive and in the fact that they do not live forever, leaving us assured only of our own mortality.

Choi’s parents figure prominently in these poems, many of the pieces referencing his father, more still his mother. His family having emigrated from Korea when he was very small, Choi seems constantly at cross purposes with himself, struggling to feel at home in the new land and the forgotten one, never completely achieving the sort of idyllic existence he longs for in either. There’s a glorification of both old and new homes here, and, thus, a devaluation of them as well. In this, Choi captures and rarefies the immigrant’s experience—the lure of the perfect future that never comes to pass, the love for a past made grander by the fact that it never was.

 

 

The Gargoyle Hunters by John Freeman Gill

 


GillLongtime New York Times contributor John Freeman Gill’s first novel, The Gargoyle Hunters, falls in the category of the New York novel, the city on some level not just setting but character. In this instance, that character is portrayed largely through its buildings—the architecture that seems at once to be the city’s spine and muscle, skin and limbs; an unlikely web of iron and stone through which the narrator, Griffin, recalls his youth. This metaphor, and its juxtaposition of human and artificial, will become central to the book.

On the most basic level, Griffin’s thirteen-year old self seeks to connect with his divorcing parents, particularly his father who now interacts with Griffin, his mother, and sister as little more than a cranky landlord. The only way for Griffin to bridge the emotional distance seems his father’s work as an antique restorer and dealer, a profession which has become something like an obsession, a fixation on the glory of the city’s past.

In turns quirky and cunning, naïve and knowing, achingly sad and subtly comic Gill conjures visuals that will fill your mind and family drama that will haunt you, a combination that leaves you longing to experience Griffin’s lost New York. This is a mystery about the ways in which infatuation with artifice can become such an obsession that we stop caring about things like love and family, ways in which if we’re not careful, we can become more like the stone artifacts Griffin and his father hunt than human beings.

 

Sunshine State by Sarah Gerard

 

Gerard

Sunshine State, Gerard’s follow-up to her debut novel, Binary Star, is an impressive, albeit uneven collection of writing. Though the book initially purports to be nonfiction, there are enough cautions scattered throughout to make us question that status, perhaps most notably the beginning of the piece “Sunshine State,” where Gerard states, “Characters in the following story are presenting their own versions of events and do not necessarily reflect the truth, which we may never know.” While these recurring cautions may leave you to question the book’s relationship with the truth, they’re not enough to keep you from continuing a generally engaging collection.

Conscious as we are of Gerard’s talent and the resulting successes, it would be wrong to suggest this collection is without flaws. In addition to Sunshine State’s slipperiness in coming down on one side of the fiction/nonfiction divide, the final piece feels throwaway, disconnected from the rest of the book, its use of italicization drawing attention to what seemed to me a lack of real, fully-considered content. More even, the book’s dizzying reliance on footnotes was just too much for this sort of non-scholarly work.

All that said, in Sunshine State’s best work—the opening essay, “BFF”, the title piece, and its follow-on, “Rabbit”—Gerard effortlessly covers vast amounts of emotional and intellectual terrain, doing so in a voice that’s smart and powerful overall, streetwise when necessary. Truly, few writers can manage to be this profound without becoming self-conscious or this affective without becoming overwrought. To accomplish both, with this much style, is indeed rare. Perhaps it’s just that Gerard sets such a high standard with her hits, that her misses are made even more obvious.

 

Ill Will by Dan Chaon

 

Chaon

Dan Chaon’s latest novel isn’t a prototypical member of the “serial thriller” subgenre, a form made famous by Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter books (and the critically acclaimed movies and television show they spawned). Far more adventurous in spirit, Ill Will combines elegant prose, manifold points of view, and contemporary family drama with the life-or-death tension, mystery, and suspense essential to serial thrillers. The result is a hybrid that succeeds not only as entertainment, but serious fiction.

Satanism and sexual abuse, an unexplained killing in the past and an active serial killer (or killers) in the present: All these elements are at play, making Ill Will’s ground situation textbook in its topicality. Once engaged, though, the story flows more loosely than genre conventions normally demand, its movements guided by the thoughts of its narrators, main character Dustin Tillman and the people whose lives orbit his own. A poor man’s version of the brilliant criminologist archetype, Tillman is an idiosyncratic middle class character with a dark past, a historic debt (or, perhaps, debts) for which payment seems about to come due.

Looking past Chaon’s brilliant sense of story and the narrative fragmentation he uses to bring it to fruition, the most important questions asked by this narrative are philosophical, born of its title. Is there a sense, perhaps even a force, of malice ordering our world, robbing us of agency?  Or do we reap the effects of our intentions, subconscious and inscrutable as they may be? These questions aren’t easy to answer nor are they mutually exclusive within the confines of the book, but they will determine whether readers see Ill Will as simply good or, in fact, transcendent. More than that, they will determine whether Chaon’s latest can reach beyond commercial and even mainstream literary success to contend for prizes with names such as Booker and Pulitzer.

 

All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg

 

Attenberg

Humor and intelligence, postmodern attitude and radical candor—these qualities live, each of them, in Jami Attenberg’s writing. In concert, they create a distinctively enchanting literary voice, one Attenberg uses to lure her reader in, to keep him believing in the potential of a tale that seems comprised of slices from a pretty ordinary life. The contents of All Grown Up are deceptive though, even a tad magical in their cumulative effect; which is to leave the reader feeling wiser, somehow more in tune with the world, able to laugh at all but the most profound sadnesses, just as Attenberg does.

Attenberg’s narrator is a semi-former artist named Andrea Bern. A New Yorker approaching middle age, Andrea looks back on the first half or so of her life, on her relationships with her parents, family, and friends. Anecdotes are the currency here, the chapters episodic, structurally reminiscent of short stories or even sitcoms. All Grown Up isn’t your average Thursday night in the drivel pen, though. Anything it gives up structurally is made up for with voice, insight, and a brilliant, darkly glittering conclusion that will leave most people near tears.

Cutting and witty in its observations, provocative in its tone, All Grown Up reads like a dream. The writing itself is succinct, eloquent but never ostentatious, never taking away from the power of its voice. This was the first book I read by Jami Attenberg, but it won’t be the last. A polished, gifted writer Attenberg combines comedy, pathos, and incredible voice to create a tonic for readers weary both of literary pretensions and vapid escapism. Too accomplished to be simply upmarket, too enjoyable to be just literary, All Grown Up is its own near-perfect hybrid.

 

The Summer She Was Under Water by Jen Michalski

Michalski

Michalski’s second novel is a crisply written, emotionally taut study of a family reunited at their lake cabin after many years apart. Children grown, parents dealing with late-life health issues, memories haunt the novel’s narrator, Sam, alternately flaring and smoldering like her parents’ ubiquitous cigarettes. From the beginning, a family history of addiction, abuse, and darker things still dominates the book, creating a depressed mood despite bright surroundings.

Arriving with her first, metaphorical novel in tow, both literally and figuratively—The Summer She Was Under Water alternates between Michalski’s narration of Sam’s lived reality and excerpts from Sam’s own novel—Sam hopes a reunion with her musician-junky brother will prompt a confrontation over the book’s contents, which include thinly veiled allusions to a sexual history they share.

The Summer She Was Under Water is a quick, dark book, one in which life offers many questions, few answers. Lurking always are Sam’s memories of her brother Steve, memories that have come to dominate every aspect of her life, from her work to her relationship with her boyfriend, Michael. Both in terms of prose and dialogue, Michalski’s writing is vivid and true to life, perfect for a world in which connections to other humans seem tenuous, always one wrong word or action from being cut, perhaps forever.