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!

Kurt Baumeister Interviewed by Bestselling Author Christine Sneed

Q and A with Kurt Baumeister about his new novel PAX AMERICANA

1.  Tell us a little about your new novel.First off, Christine, thank you so much for interviewing me! As a debut author at a new press, it’s not always easy to capture the interest of the media. I appreciate your generosity in giving me this opportunity.

Pax Americana is my first novel, the beginning of a trilogy I’ve been working on for more than a decade. I began the project during the Bush administration as a response to the greed, militarism, and religious extremism I saw growing in America in the wake of 9/11. Those impulses have always been with us, I think, in America and, more broadly, humanity. But the first decade of the 21st century saw them reach what seemed to be an apex—the Great Recession born of the housing crash, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the idea of a clash of civilizations between Islam and the West—sadly, that hasn’t been the truth of it.

Turns out after what may well come to seem the idyllic Obama administration, we’ve doubled down on all the things that made his predecessor, Dubya, such a horrible president. The know-nothing-ism, the Christian bigotry, the militarism, the ludicrous tax cuts for the wealthy, the overspending. With Trump, it seems we’re going to get every bit of Dubya’s disastrous policies without the benefit of his “compassionate conservatism” or the experienced advisors he brought to Washington care of his father’s administration. And it’s all going to be delivered to us by a uniquely boorish neo-fascist jackass, one Donald J. Trump. Maybe the only positive I can take from the current environment is that it makes Pax Americana relevant in a way it may not have been had Clinton won.

A literary thriller set in 2034, Pax Americana is a satirical spy novel about an America that’s run wild with Christianity and extreme capitalism; the blending of which (do unto others, turn the other cheek, the bit about the rich man and the camel) would seem impossible in the abstract. Somehow we manage. Pax Americana’s protagonist is a young government agent named Tuck Squires. Tuck’s wealthy and handsome, tall and athletic—everything you’d want if you were creating a secret agent in a lab—but he’s also an evangelical Christian and a bit of a fuck-up. Paired with a much older former super-spy (and semi-former drunk) named Ken Clarion, Tuck takes off to investigate the disappearance of Diana Scorsi, a scientist who’s developed a breakthrough spirituality program, a sort of non-denominational god software. The technology is called Symmetra and it represents an advance so disruptive it has the potential to bring about world peace on one hand, apocalypse on the other.

2.  How did this novel begin, i.e. was there a model for Tuck Squires, for example?

Pax Americana began more than a decade ago with a short story about an inventor of “God” software and an American real estate developer trying to rebuild Jerusalem in the wake of a catastrophic terrorist attack. I won’t get too far into it, because I see a lot of the material as working into the other two books in the trilogy; but, I can say without reservation, it began in a very different place than it ended. I guess anything you work on that long is going to change a lot during construction. As to Tuck, I suppose he’s a fantasy of sorts. From the outside at least, he’s the guy I would have liked to be. But there’s plenty of self-mockery built into the fantasy. While he may seem perfect, Tuck is a victim of his own privilege, his head, like those of many Americans, filled with stereotypes about poor people, women, racial minorities, and non-Christians. He’s a bumbler, too. I mean, Tuck may look like one of those brooding Ralph Lauren models and he may think he’s James Bond; but deep down he’s more like a cross between Mitt Romney and Daffy Duck. For me, perhaps the most interesting thing about Tuck is how unaware of his own flaws he is; not to mention those of America, Christianity, and Capitalism. But that’s all going to change. This trilogy represents a kooky sort of intellectual and spiritual journey for Tuck, his very own Road to Damascus.

3. You name Martin Amis as one of your biggest literary influences – which books of his, specifically? (I’m a huge fan of The Information and his memoir Experience, in particular).

I’m a big believer in the importance of masters to a writer and Amis is chief among mine. I also love The Information. I’ve read that three times. But my favorite book by Amis and I think the one that most influenced me as a writer is London Fields. I’ve read it six times.

I told Amis that once. It was at a reading of his in Boston. The end of the night, the end of a long, long signing line, I finally got to talk to him and my brain froze. All I could spit out was something like “I’m a huge fan” and the bit about having read London Fields an ungodly number of times (perhaps at that point it was three or four). I’ll never forget his response, “What on earth for?”

I did a double take, trying to figure out whether my literary hero was mocking me; but it was a sincere question, the sort that defines a writer with real class. He waved off the Waterstone’s minders who’d swooped in to rescue him from an obvious lunatic and listened as I told him what I thought of his book. I doubt the conversation lasted more than a minute, and I’m sure it didn’t register with Amis, but it was a memorable experience for me.  

4. You write book reviews frequently for The Nervous Breakdown–how do your critical skills influence your fiction writing?  

 Yes, I do a book review column for The Nervous Breakdown. It’s a micro review column so I cover six books each time, three hundred words or so on each. I also do longer form reviews for other outlets, most notably Electric Literature. I need to get back to my column. I’ve let it slide a bit lately, but once this book is released I intend to dive back in.

I spend a lot of time thinking about symbolism and themes when I’m reviewing, and I think that carries over to my fiction. I know there are plenty of writers, professors, and critics who shy away from talking about those things. Maybe they see them as juvenile, but to me, it’s important to think about what’s behind a text. To be clear: While I think themes and symbols are important, I also think they’re malleable in that they can have different, valid meanings for different readers. When I think of symbols in fiction, I come back to Kundera’s philosophy of the novel, “The stupidity of people comes from having an answer for everything. The wisdom of the novel comes from having a question for everything… In a world built on sacrosanct certainties the novel is dead. The totalitarian world, whether founded on Marx, Islam, or anything else, is a world of answers rather than questions. There, the novel has no place.” I’d simplify this as saying, “The novelist’s job is to ask questions, not to answer them.” To which I’d add, there are many different sorts of questions.

5.  Bobby Jindal, governor of Louisiana, is a character here & is satirized with great wit – aside from the obvious, his political platform, what led you to choose him as one of your emblematic characters of right-wing policy? 

Jindal is uniquely representative of the Bush era for me. More than that, he provides a bridge to the Obama years and understanding what the Republicans took away from Obama’s presidency. The Republicans both hated and admired Obama because of what he achieved despite his race and his youth. Yet, that’s what they boiled him down to: race and youth. And, so, with someone like Jindal, they attempted to find their own Obama, their own youthful minority politician. But the fact that they spent so much time trying to make Jindal into a star points to how little they understood Obama’s appeal. They didn’t get Obama’s intellect or his charm, his charisma, his skill as an orator, or any of his other singular qualities. They only understood he was young and a minority. Jindal failed as a national political figure not because he was young or a minority, but because that’s all he was. In a way, Pax Americana is a send-up of what America might have looked like if the Republicans had gotten everything they’d wanted, and that had just kept going. And so, as part of that, I made Bobby Jindal Governor of Louisiana, basically forever.

6.  Did you ever think about setting this novel in the present?  Or did you know from the beginning that you would set it in 2034 or thereabouts?

I considered making the timing different initially. In the end, divorcing it from present day was important. The alternate history angle of this was central to me, and the geopolitical, social, and technological extrapolations had to work. I spent a lot time charting out political events and life cycles for various characters, making sure they did. Ultimately, 2034 was the year when things came together.

7.  What’s next, if you don’t mind telling us?

Mind? Are you kidding? I’d love to.

Right now, I’m working on a novel called Loki’s Gambit. A mythocomic crime fantasy set (mostly) in the modern world, the book is narrated in first person by the Norse god Loki. In addition to POV, there are a few other twists on the typical rendering of Norse mythology, most important probably that Loki’s “good.” Consequently, the typically “good” gods (Odin, Thor, etc.) are evil. There’s also Nazi gold, modern conservatism and neo-fascism (even a bit about Trump), a little magic, a lot of sex, BMW’s, biker gangs, a coup in Germany, giant little people, a dog named Fenris, a norn named Sunshine, and, of course, a caper or two. As for Pax Americana, this book is indeed the beginning of a trilogy. The other volumes, for which I have plenty of material, are tentatively entitled Virtual Jerusalem and The Gods of Heroes and Villains. I’m also about halfway through a poetry collection, which I don’t expect to make much money but I very much want to see in print.

Kurt Baumeister has written for Salon, Electric Literature, The Weeklings, The Nervous Breakdown, The Rumpus, The Good Men Project, and others. An Emerson MFA and Contributing Editor with The Weeklings, his monthly Review Microbrew column is published by The Nervous Breakdown. Baumeister’s debut novel, a satirical thriller entitled Pax Americana, will be published by Stalking Horse Press in early 2017. Find him on Facebook, Twitter, or at www.kurtbaumeister.com.

Caroline Leavitt Interviews Kurt Baumeister + Bonus Excerpt

http://carolineleavittville.blogspot.com/2017/03/kurt-baumeister-talks-about-his-jazzy.html

 

March 11, 2017

Kurt Baumeister talks about his jazzy new political thriller Pax Americana, spirituality, God, gods, writing and so much more. Plus, read an excerpt!

I’m always thrilled when someone I know writes a novel that knocks my socks off–and Kurt Baumeister’s knocked my shoes off, too. It’s a political thriller and trust me, it’s that good.

Kurt Baumeister’s writing has appeared in Salon, Electric Literature, The Nervous Breakdown, The Rumpus, and The Good Men Project. His debut novel PAX AMERICANA will be published in 2017 by Stalking Horse Press. A graduate of Emerson’s MFA program, Kurt lives in Virginia. Find him at http://www.kurtbaumeister.com. Thanks so much Kurt for being here.

I always want to know what was haunting the author enough to write a particular book—so, what was haunting you?

Religion, philosophy, spirituality, God, gods, the concept of the metaphysical—those are some of the things that animated my thinking about PAX AMERICANA. Over time, I’ve come to see these sorts of issues as simultaneously significant and absurd. Which probably explains why this book is satirical. I don’t see the metaphysical world as non-existent necessarily—though I am a skeptic—but to the extent that world does exist, I see it largely as unknowable. As far as religion itself goes, my feeling is you should go with whatever gets you through the night.  If believing in a God (or Goddess or gods or goddesses) makes your life easier, that’s a good thing. As long as your belief doesn’t impose itself on the reality of others. Which, I think, is where the trouble usually starts. That’s the line we walk in America. How do you allow people to believe what they want without burdening others as a result of those beliefs? I think America’s founders were mostly inclined to favor religion, to see it as a good (even necessary) thing in and of itself. I also think they would have very different opinions today, knowing all we know. That’s not to say that a constitution written today would not have freedom of religion as a guaranteed right, but the ability to proselytize, to control the public square with your religion, the tax exemptions for simply being churches (rather than doing material good) would probably be curtailed. Other book-related hauntings: America, the corporate state, fast food, theocracies, advertising, the conservative bubble, nuclear war, New Orleans, Ian Fleming’s James Bond, animals, sports cars, silly names for products, people, and just about everything else. Man, Caroline, I am haunted by a lot.

Writing a novel is like trying to get your way out of jungle with only a dull-edged butter knife instead of a machete. But there are surprises along the way. What were yours? And what kind of writer are you?

Well, based on this example, I’d say I’m clearly the sort of writer who’d bring a butter knife to a machete fight. And I did. My god, did this book take me a long time. I wrote PAX AMERICANA as a more experimental novel first (though, it wasn’t called PAX AMERICANA then). By the time I was done with that draft, I had 130K words, 111 chapters, and seven narrators. So, basically, a pretentious mess. I cut the manuscript without much mercy, got it down to the 50K range then built it back up into something I hoped would be a bit more commercial but still retain some of the spoofy, satirical, metafictional feel I wanted.  I suppose the most surprising thing about the book is how much of a transformation Diana Scorsi underwent from the first version to the final. Besides having a different name and a much more elaborate back story in earlier drafts, she was one of the book’s villains. Though, in my (fictional) world I try to muck around with concepts of heroism and villainy. And regardless of where I personally come down on each character, I try to give them enough autonomy to see themselves as the hero of their own story, even if they might not be the hero of mine.

Your political thriller is so innovative, so fresh, that I’d love it if you’d talk about what is wrong with the traditional thriller (and what might be right.) And did you ever feel like you were breaking rules (and did you take great glee in that)?

Thank you so much for saying that. Words like ‘innovative’ do my dark little heart good. I have a difficult time categorizing this book: lurching from literary fiction to slipstream, spy novel to satire, thriller to science fiction when I do try. I guess the best thing to say is that it’s a combination of all these; though that doesn’t make for a very concise pitch. To the extent this is a political thriller, I see it as a sort of anti-thriller. It’s not that I dislike the genre. I grew up watching James Bond save the world, and reading about it, too. This is more an anti-thriller in that many of the genre conventions serve satirical purposes and also in that the tropes of the hero serving God and country are very much in doubt. One of my great interests is politics. I suppose on some level this is an attempt to create a real political back story for a thriller, to fully engage with the politics that are usually held at arm’s length. Even though, ultimately, the politics here are satirical, too. The things I think the thriller genre does absolutely get right are its pacing, attention to plot, story, and dialogue. I think these more “mundane” literary virtues are often completely forgotten in “literary” fiction. A lot of people can write great sentences. (By a lot of people, I mean a lot of serious, professional writers.) But, can you do that, make the machine move, and still make people feel something (even if that something is only laughter)? That’s the real trick.

What advice do you give other writers?

I love giving advice to people. When they ask for it.  But, as far as writing is concerned, I’ve come to believe the best thing we can do is accept that each person must walk their own path. This doesn’t mean you refrain from giving writing advice (and especially for teachers, this would be silly), but it does mean accepting your rules or precepts, or whatever you call them, may not work at all for someone else. For me, this particularly applies to art and craft (prose style, artistic vision, use of symbolism, etc.) as opposed to the business side of things (how to deal with submissions, agents, publishers, and booksellers, etc.). In my experience, the worst writing teachers are, unfortunately, also the most dogmatic. Like tourists lost in a foreign land, they shout the same words louder and louder in the careless certainty everyone will eventually understand. And they may, in fact, have cracked the code for themselves. Which is something to applaud. But the truly universal in the teaching of art? The inviolable, infallible truth? To me, that doesn’t exist. Except for one thing: “Does it work?” This makes for a lot of trial and error, but for me, it’s the only way to go.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

The election, no question. It’s miraculous how every four years we forget everything we’d learned four years before. During primary season, we spend so much time fighting over relatively small differences, making them out to be far greater than they are. Then, during the general election every candidate heads for the middle at light speed. Probably the most interesting part is how obvious things seem in retrospect and how unobvious they are as they happen. Obama didn’t beat Romney by a lot. He didn’t beat McCain by a lot. The country is fairly evenly divided. So, even though a candidate like Trump or Clinton may seem so absolutely ridiculous, so unsupportable, to those of us on the other side, it doesn’t necessarily seem that way to the small group of people in the middle, the ones who actually decide our elections. Even landslide elections (Nixon-McGovern, Reagan-Mondale, Bush-Dukakis), results that seem so certain in retrospect, really weren’t. If we accelerate the timetable for something like Watergate or Iran-Contra, those elections’ results might have been starkly different. The idea of alternate histories fascinates me and no doubt an alternate reality in which the George W. Bush Administration was a complete success (for all the most horrible reasons) is central to PAX AMERICANA.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

KGB (as CL): Are there more where this came from?

KGB (as KGB): More books, you mean? Please mean more books.

KGB (as CL): Sure, OK…

KGB (as KGB): Definitely. Right now I’m working on a mythocomic crime fantasy called LOKI’S GAMBIT. You’d rightly draw the conclusion that it has something to do with Norse mythology, that the god Loki is, in fact, the narrator and protagonist, though it’s set in the modern world and there are a few twists (most important Loki’s “good,” sort of). The challenge has been to write away from AMERICAN GODS, a book I hadn’t read until long after I started working on LOKI’S GAMBIT. I do think I’m accomplishing that—writing away from Gaiman’s book—though to make that work I’ve had to move most of the story to Europe. Which makes sense since the story was always about World War II, Nazi gold, modern conservatism, and the evolution of the Norse gods. As for PAX AMERICANA, this book is indeed the beginning of a trilogy. The other volumes, for which I have plenty of material, are tentatively entitled VIRTUAL JERUSALEM and THE GODS OF HEROES AND VILLAINS. I’m also about halfway through a poetry collection.

EXCERPT FROM PAX AMERICANA
(c) by Kurt Baumeister

Hunter’s office was its usual seventy-two degrees, arid, and suffused with the same bronzed mixture of subterranean darkness and simulated daylight, the artificial shadows, that permeated HQ. Tuck sat in one of Hunter’s rust-hued, industrially-upholstered, government guest chairs staring across a desk arrayed with official gifts, piles of paper, and—he knew—more than a few camouflaged weapons. One in particular had caught his eye—a brass chimp just a little taller than the Captain Christianity action figures he’d played with as a boy.

Armed with a scimitar in one hand and an American flag in the other, the little guy looked fully capable of striking with either mitt. Gas might pour out of his mouth, a poisoned dart shoot from his belly button…You never knew, and that was the point. Abu Yashid was always trying to take out Hunter, and there were security features everywhere. It made sense to stay alert, to make sure one of those security features didn’t go off in your frickin’ face.

Still, Tuck couldn’t help feeling a little wistful as he looked at the chimp, as he remembered that grand, old Captain Christianity set-up he’d had in his second playroom at Black Briars—the dark castle of Christo Antares, the mountain fortress of Diabolus, and the sparkling citadel of the Captain himself. He thought of the tiny wars of good and evil he’d waged in that room, preparing for the day when he’d be able to begin the real war of good and evil, his crusade to reclaim his father’s memory from the jihadis who’d murdered it.

“Again?” Hunter scowled as she looked up from her tablet.

Even though she was in her late fifties, Tuck had always found Hunter compelling. She radiated power, raw strength and the will to control it. What might once have been the face of a cheerleader was scored with lines now, the only thing you might still call pretty Hunter’s blue eyes. Like a deep sea somehow brimming with light, they always distracted Tuck, left him thinking of America and feeling as though Hunter was special. And she was. Even though Hunter wasn’t a true Traditionalist, she’d survived and kept her power through many administrations. Tuck was sure she knew where plenty of skeletons were buried. He was also sure that Raglan and Thunder Vance, his Secretary of Homeland Security, wanted Hunter out. They just hadn’t figured how to do it yet.

“Again?” Tuck parroted, careful to keep the chimp in his field of vision.

“As in: what have we spoken about, Squires?”

Tuck scanned his memory for anything important that had happened lately. All there’d been was Brussels—a flight there, a flight back, and a lot of babysitting in between. He raised his eyebrows, smiled a little more fully, and waited.

When Hunter didn’t add anything, Tuck considered the possibility that she was messing with him. Maybe her scowl was just a trick to cover the fact that she was going to give him his promotion. He decided to take a chance, backing his chair out of the chimp’s line of sight just in case.

“You mean my promotion, ma’am?”
“Promotion?” Hunter took off her glasses, angling her gaze away from Tuck. Her eyes scanned the walls of her office—the watercolors and oils, the flag, the antique sidearms, and gleaming blades. She nodded slightly, as if arriving at a decision. When she turned back to him, her expression lay somewhere between disbelief and bemusement. All things considered, Tuck felt like it could have been a lot worse. Still, the pitch of her voice rose,

“Which promotion was that?”

Tuck fought the urge to scoot again, eyed Hunter warily. “Senior Special Agent.”

“Normally, you have to make Special Agent first.”

“Yes, but I thought—”

“You thought?”

He nodded.

She smirked. “You thought what you’ve thought all along. That because your last name is Squires, you might get a bit of special treatment, a little boost.”

“No, ma’am.”

“Honestly, Squires, you’re lucky I don’t suspend your ass.”

“Suspend? I’m still not following you, ma’am. But may I say you’re looking particularly youthful today?” He eyed the lapel of her suit. “Red really is your color.”

“Save it.”

“Save what?”

“Whatever part of your dignity you haven’t squandered already.” Hunter said, depositing her glasses on the desk. “I’m talking about the fucking Mossad agent on your last assignment.”

Tuck cringed. He hated it when people cursed around him, especially people he couldn’t call on it like Hunter. “That’s not ringing any bells, ma’am.”

Hunter glanced at her screen. “The name, Hadara Telka, doesn’t mean anything to you?” She slid her hand across the desk, rested it near the chimp’s base, and smiled.

Tuck’s gaze fell back to the monkey. Had one of his eyes just opened? “Oh, OK, yeah, I think I remember someone with a name like that. She didn’t say she was Mossad though.” When Hunter didn’t add any more details Tuck asked, “What’d she do?”

Hunter snorted. “They say you asked her if she was ready to meet Jesus.”

“I asked her if she knew Jesus.”

“Either way, they’re construing your comments as a threat to her person.”

“She’s a Jew.”

“She’s still got a soul, doesn’t she?”

“I just got off the phone with Thunder. She was not amused by any of this.”

“I don’t know what to say, ma’am. I was just exercising my Constitutional rights. What are we fighting for if not religious freedom?”

“We’re not fighting for anything anymore, Squires. I guess you didn’t get the livelink, but we’re not at war for the first time in thirty years.”

“Unfortunately,” Tuck said, nodding sadly.

“Unfortunately what?”

“Nothing.”

Hunter sneered and tapped the voice button on her tablet. Her assistant, Lexus, picked up.

“Ma’am.”

“Send in Clarion.”

“Clarion?” Tuck watched as former top agent and current disgraced desk jockey, Ken Clarion, entered the room.

Well into his fifties, Clarion was several inches shorter than Tuck. Good looking in a menacing way, he reminded Tuck of a seventh banana from one of those 90s gangster comedies, the vaguely charismatic one who winds up being a secret psychopath. Salt and pepper hair, at least a day of beard; black, rack suit—Brooks Brothers at best—and gas station Wayfarers. His look might have been right for the manager of a nightclub in the 1980s, but it was all wrong for a representative of the greatest nation on the face of the Earth.

“Director,” Clarion said. He crossed the room, gave a curt nod as he took the seat next to Tuck.

Tuck and Clarion had met before. First, in an Advanced Procedures seminar at the Academy when Clarion had given Tuck a B- on his final, left him sweating for days about being thrown out. Next, they’d crossed paths in the cafeteria; Tuck nodding coolly, Clarion with that bemused expression on his face, as if he was surprised Tuck was still with the Bureau.

Still, Tuck knew enough not to discount Clarion. He’d been good, maybe more than good, once upon a time. But a series of divorces, wrecked cars, and drunk tanks had killed his career as a field agent. Clarion was tight with Hunter, and had been for decades—they’d gone to the Academy together in their twenties—that was the only reason he’d managed to stay with the Bureau.

“Clarion’s your new partner,” she said.

PAX AMERICANA Press Release

WELCOME! KURT BAUMEISTER – PAX AMERICANA

Kurt-Baumeister-600

The Horse is honored to be publishing Kurt Baumeister’s speculative satire PAX AMERICANA in 2017, a blisteringly ironic political thriller that has already garnered plaudits from Shya Scanlon (Forecast, Border Run, and The Guild of Saint Cooper), and Sean Beaudoin (Welcome Thieves).

“Like an episode of Archer written by Kurt Vonnegut, Baumeister takes us into a hilarious and high-velocity world of espionage and global politics in this send-up of God, country, and the possibility of doing good in a world gone bad. It’s fast-paced fun, watch out for paper cuts as the pages fly by.”

–Shya Scanlon, author FORECAST, BORDER RUN, and THE GUILD OF SAINT COOPER

“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.”

–Sean Beaudoin, author of WELCOME THIEVES

Kurt’s Bio:

Kurt Baumeister has written for Salon, Electric Literature, The Weeklings, The Nervous Breakdown, The Rumpus, The Good Men Project, and others. An Emerson MFA and Contributing Editor with The Weeklings, his monthly Review Microbrew column is published by The Nervous Breakdown. Baumeister’s debut novel, a satirical thriller entitled Pax Americana, will be published by Stalking Horse Press in early 2017. Find him on Facebook, Twitter, or at http://www.kurtbaumeister.com.