PAX AMERICANA Review/Author Interview at RAIN TAXI

Published initially by Rain Taxi

ROCK STARS, SECRET AGENTS,
AND AMERICAN MYTHS:
A CONVERSATION BETWEEN
CONSTANCE SQUIRES
AND KURT BAUMEISTER

Pax Americana
Kurt Baumeister

Stalking Horse Press ($19.99)

Live from Medicine Park
Constance Squires

Univ. of Oklahoma Press ($19.95)

Live from Medicine Park is a pure distillation of the dream that is America, one with little time to waste on the clichéd façade of hard work and success we so often associate with that dream. A tale of anonymity, fame, redemption, and remembrance that rises like myth from the sweltering heartland itself this is, nonetheless, a deeply realistic story of postmodern America, of disappeared rock goddesses, space-suited guitar wizards, Toyota dealerships, documentary filmmakers, and last gasps at fame. Filled with characters struggling more than they know, Live from Medicine Park is an unflinching portrait of America’s realities, Constance Squires just the sort of clear-eyed stylist to steer her characters and America towards the truth about themselves.
—Kurt Baumeister

Constance Squires is the award-winning author of Live from Medicine ParkAlong the Watchtower: A Novel and the forthcoming story collection, Hit Your Brights. Her numerous short stories have appeared in GuernicaShenandoahAtlantic Monthly, and other magazines. She teaches creative writing at the University of Central Oklahoma.

Brilliantly plotted and linguistically nimble, Kurt Baumeister’s Pax America is a high-flying book as arch as it is deft. The spy thriller plot, particularly as we know it from James Bond films, serves as a surprisingly flexible skeleton for Baumeister to tell a dystopic tale of a not-too-distant American future after thirty plus years of right wing control. Part satire, part homage to the form, Pax Americanaalso resonates with other parodies like Archer and the Austin Powers movies—there’s an unabashed glee in playing with the loopier elements of the genre—hidden islands rigged out with nuclear devices, sharks, henchmen, allegorical names, and a suitably oh-no-whoever-controls-it-controls-the-world Maguffin in the form of a technology, called Symmetra, with vast, cryptic spiritual power. Beneath all the fun, there’s a serious critique of tendencies in our culture that are scary, but in a way that makes considering them go down as easily as a Righteous Burger. James Bond for the #MeToo moment.
—Constance Squires

Kurt Baumeister has written for SalonElectric LiteratureThe Rumpus, and others. His debut novel, Pax Americana, was published in 2017. He is currently at work on a novel, The Book of Loki, and a hybrid collection of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry entitled Superman, the Seven Gods of Death, and the Need for Clean, Romantic Poetry.


Kurt Baumeister: Connie, I’ve been eager to talk to you about Live from Medicine Park. First off, let’s cover the fact that this is a Rock n’ Roll Novel. More specifically, this is a book with a certain kinship to Great Jones Street, one of our mutual hero Don DeLillo’s earliest books. The books seem like mirror images in a way; in Great Jones Street, rock star Bucky Wunderlick is trying to escape fame. In yours, you’ve also got a rock star at the center of things, Lena Wells, but Lena’s trying to regain the fame she lost decades earlier. Do you think this is a fair comparison?

Constance Squires: I love Great Jones Street and definitely wanted to tip my hat to it in the media kit section of Live from Medicine Park. There’s always a question of how to represent the music on the page in a book that deals with music, and of course you always want whatever you do to deepen character, so I wrote a media kit inspired by Great Jones Street that contained Lena’s lyrics and some reviews. I wanted the lyrics to show sides of her that she wouldn’t show Ray in person. I don’t go so far as to think of my story as a reversal of Great Jones Street, though, mainly because Lena’s not the main character and her ideas about her career and music aren’t what drive the story. Lena is sort of a Gatsby figure, someone who the main character, Ray, thinks a lot about, but she probably changes less than anyone of the other key characters. She’s at the heart of the book, but she’s not the engine.

KGB: The idea of Lena as a Gatsby figure is an interesting one. DeLillo and Fitzgerald share an iciness in tone, a detachment critics have commented on. I don’t notice that with your work. In fact, the balance you show in developing and presenting emotional conflict is striking. Live from Medicine Park is no tear-jerker, but you take quite a few characters here and give them meaningful inner lives, even the minor ones. Is there a sort of North Star you look to as you develop characters, something that helps you succeed in developing their interiority?

CS: Thank you! I know what you mean about DeLillo’s iciness, and I’m glad to have a warmer book. I think we’re all trying to write the kind of book we’d like to read, and everybody has a different set point for what they want in an emotional conflict. I’m bored and sickened by sheer melodrama, but stuff that’s too ironic and glib feels almost like cowardice to me, like a writer not wanting to go there. I think in life I try to notice this tendency in myself when it comes up and then to make myself think about or feel or act on whatever it is that’s uncomfortable, so maybe I just extend that expectation to my characters. I do know that my favorite kind of characters are very flawed—I always feel grateful to writers that give me a flawed character I can relate to at the same time I get to watch her figure things out. It’s no different than life; a person that will say, “Hey, you know what, I was such an asshole and I’m sorry,” is a thousand times more compelling and admirable than someone who shirks and blames and avoids.

So, Kurt, to bat one back at you here: On the subject of iciness, I admire the way you manage to warm up Tuck Squires in Pax Americana so that he is so much more than just a type. I’ve read a lot of stuff in which it’s clear where the writer’s sympathies lie, and so often it means that the character representing the values the writer disagrees with is not given much humanity. Satire can be especially cold, because the conceit often trumps the characterization, but you really surprised me in how reasonable and even admirable Tuck was in certain moments. Again and again we see that he is loyal and determined; that you let those traits coexist with his less likeable ones took this book to another level for me. Tell me about writing Tuck—where did that character come from and how did you feel your way into his voice?

KGB: Tuck is a fantasy/anti-fantasy persona. Speaking superficially, he’s everything one could ever want to be—young, rich, handsome, athletic, sure of his place in the world, confident—but he’s also a complete fucking mess. To the extent Tuck is successful as a protagonist, I think the thing that makes him work is his conviction that he’s doing right even when he’s not. Like so many of the characters in this book, Tuck is, on some level, a failed Christ figure. He wants to save the day and I do think there’s nobility in that. Sure, he wants all the accolades that might go with it, but even if you’re the worst person in the world, if you want to save the world, there’s something good about you. And I think this is applicable to all the characters, including the villains. The funny thing about villains is very few people or even characters would cop to being one. With few exceptions, each of us is the hero of our own story. When people talk about heroes and villains, antiheroes and antivillains, my ears always perk up, because our perceptions of heroism or villainy, good or evil, are subjective. One woman’s hero is another’s villain.

As far as Tuck’s voice goes, I hear him as someone who’s developed a veneer of confidence, someone who conveys the conviction he’s doing right, no matter how wrong he obviously is. Because he’s so convinced of how right he is, Tuck can say and do things that are awful and funny all at once. He’s not politically correct. In this way, he’s the voice of the far, religious right in America, the part of it that seemed to be ascendant under W. Bush.

CS: I adore unreliable narrators and love Tuck for that reason, but Diana is another key voice. The alternating chapter structure, Tuck and Diana, really works; did you conceive the book that way or did you find you needed Diana for certain things?

KGB: This book was a lot longer at one point, perhaps up to 130,000 words, and there were more points of view. As I trimmed the word count, one of the obvious (though not easy) things to do was get rid of POV characters. I knew I needed Diana and Parlay; they are the drivers for the story, so I had to be able to get inside their heads directly. Tuck and Clarion drive the plot, so I had to keep them as well. I toyed with Jack Justice as a POV character and he was fun to write but ultimately superfluous. Beyond all this, if there’s one thing I absolutely needed Diana for it was her goodness, her heroism. She’s the best of these characters, the most admirable and the most intelligent. I think she understands the limits of human knowledge, the fact that we’re constantly evolving our understanding of the world.

Thinking now about heroism, and, also, failure—Diana’s, Tuck’s, Clarion’s, but also your main character, Ray’s—Ray is the protagonist in Live from Medicine Park, the hero in a way, and he’d understand that about himself, auteur that he is. He’s also a realistic character, and though ultimately successful on some level, he spends a lot of time failing.

CS: Right. Ray believes he is a cool, objective filmmaker who never gets involved or steps from behind the camera. His mantra from Star Trek about the prime objective—never interfere with the fate of a civilization you’re visiting—articulates this position. He fails utterly at this, and so the crisis of the novel involves a moment when someone he cares about on the Medicine Park set is gravely hurt because he’s practicing the same character flaws that got someone shot on his last set—he’s finally having to get real with himself about that.

KGB: Coming to terms with the truth about themselves, the realities of their lives . . . there are a lot of characters doing that in this book. What is Live from Medicine Park saying about truth?

CS: This space is also filled with the family story around Lena—her son, Gram’s search for his father, Gram and Jettie’s band, the Black Sheep, and their approaching make-or-break moment, the mystery of Lena’s relationship with Cy, and the further question of Lena’s heritage embodied in her claim to be Geronimo’s great-granddaughter. The place—the Native American history, the military-industrial history of the base, the buffaloes and the trashy bars, the prohibition-era myths of the old hotel and the rock myths walking around in silver lamé spacesuits—is important to me. It’s not a part of the world most people have their own experience with, so it felt important to show it.

KGB: Poetry and lyrics, fiction and music reviews—your book has just about everything stylistically, something few writers can pull off. Do you feel confined by form? Is the variation of form in Live from Medicine Park an attempt to move past the novel’s traditional boundaries, or are you simply doing what your material demands?

CS: I loved writing those lyrics and reviews—it was tons of fun, and there’s actually more that the editors talked me into cutting, with good reason. I felt like I had to do it. I’ve read a lot of rock novels, and it’s so important to try to find an equivalency on the page for the experience of hearing live music and watching someone in concert. You really can’t do it, but it’s important to try, because I’m not too interested in Lena as a public figure, I’m interested in her as an artist. So, I have to show her art, at least what I can. And I tried to make Lena’s lyrics and Jettie’s lyrics different—I used different models and went for different effects. I wanted them to be of equal quality but distinct stylistic variations.

As far as moving past the novel’s traditional boundaries, I don’t feel like I did that much with this novel. Aside from the lyrics, this is a very linear narrative with quite a traditional structure, really. My first novel was much more modular, not plot-driven, and the one I’m working on now is very definitely pushing against the restrictions of the form, but Live from Medicine Park felt like it needed a strong, recognizable structure. I thought of it like a song—a listener will tolerate a lot of harmonic weirdness and cryptic lyrics and what-have-you if the rhythm section keeps driving hard, pulling you forward.

Kurt, speaking of cryptic . . . I’m sure it’s pure coincidence that your initials are KGB, but I’m enough of a dork to want to try to make something of that and the fact that you’ve written in a form that reached its pinnacle during the Cold War. I guess I’m curious about your relationship to the spy thriller genre and how you chose it. Are there certain books or movies that imprinted on you? Do you want to talk about any deliberate homages, like the way my media kit is a direct homage to DeLillo?

KGB: I think my parents were trying to be funny. Maybe? Those are just my initials, though. Certainly, the Bond books (and movies) are key. You’ve very astutely homed in on my writing relationship with the genre, at least with this book. Tuck Squires sees himself as an American Bond. And his partner, Ken Clarion, I mean, he’s only fifty-something but I’ve joked about him being a geriatric Bond. To a certain extent, I think I’m also satirizing a lot of “Christian” fiction a la the Left Behind books, other spy thrillers, and to some extent perhaps something like The Da Vinci Code.

CS: Your fictional computer program Symmetra, with its genuine spiritual potential, as well as your examples of a power-mad Christianity that resonate powerfully with our own America (like “Righteous Burger,” which is so great), suggest you have something to say about the distinction between spirituality and religion. Do you, or what concerns about religion are you manifesting in these story elements?

KGB: Absolutely. I draw a distinction between spirituality and religion. I hold out a little hope for some sort of metaphysical world beyond, though I’m fairly convinced this is it. When we die, the game stops. No second chances, no bonus rounds. One never knows, though. I think what I was trying to get at with Symmetra (or maybe better to say what its inventor, Diana Scorsi, is trying to get at) is that the chances of one of the many thousands of religions being right—or really billions, if you consider that even people who accept the same dogma interpret it differently in their heads—that in the face of all that, the idea of one religion, any religion, being right, (Christianity, say, or Islam), well, it is sort of ridiculous. If any fundamentalist interpretation of one religion is correct, it voids all the others. So, it’s just sort of funny that everyone’s running around convinced they’ve got the secret sauce and everyone else is doomed. Now, what Diana’s tried to envision, which seems more likely to me, is that if religions en masse are right, it’s in their commonalities. So, she builds a database of religions and uses this as the genesis for her technology.

CS: In their commonalities—I couldn’t agree more. Onto your dialogue: it’s snappy and smart and it veers away from anything that felt expected or formulaic. You’re great with indirection and with attitude too. How do you write dialogue? Does it come easily or have you had any embarrassing experiments as you learned your craft?

KGB: What a great thing to hear. I love writing dialogue. Honestly, it’s the easiest thing for me. The conversations just sort of come to me as I sit thinking about them. I don’t use many tags when I’m drafting, just write stuff down as it drops into my mind. My editor had to convince me to put more tags in so that readers could keep track of who’s saying what.

I just try to imagine the conversation going back and forth and write it down, then go back over it again and again until it sounds true and says everything that needs to be said. Dialogue is an easy way to provide key details—I mean, it can be a trap, too, if you go too far with it—but, used correctly, it’s an easy way to accomplish just about everything from characterization to exposition, story, and plot without being too clunky about it.

PAX AMERICANA Selected to Best of 2017 List (PANK Magazine)

Best Books of 2017

The year is almost over and it’s time to revisit some of my favorite reads of the year. As with any list, this is not as extensive/inclusive/comprehensive as I’d like it to be, but having to do other things besides reading severely cuts into the amount of time I can spend inside books (if you have any leads on a gig that pays you to read whatever you want, get at me). In any case, this was a fantastic year. I made a list of best crime reads and one of best horror books, but some of the best books were in the enormous interstitial space between genres. Anyway, here are some books I hope didn’t fly under your radar:

Where the Sun Shines Out by Kevin Catalano. I was ready for this to be great, and it was, but the pain and violence in its pages blew me away. This is a narrative about loss, guilt, and surviving, but the way Catalano builds his vignettes allows him to show the minutiae of everyday living and the sharp edges of every failure.

Absolutely Golden by D. Foy. Funny, satirical, smart, and packed with snappy dialogue and characters that are at once cartoonish and too real, this is a book that, much like Patricide did last year, proves that Foy is one of the best in the business and perhaps one of the most electric voices in contemporary literary fiction.

I Don’t Think of You (Until I Do) by Tatiana Ryckman. I met Tatiana when we read together at Malvern Books in Austin in late 2017. She read a chunk of this and it blew me away. I got the book that same night. Imagine your favorite philosopher deconstructing weird relationships while trying to simultaneously make you cringe in recognition and laugh at yourself. Well, this is what that philosopher would write. A short, powerful read that I will soon be reviewing here in its entirety, this was a blast of fresh air.

Itzá by Rios de la Luz. This short book destroys patriarchal notions of silence, abuse, and growth. Rios de la Luz wrote about a family of water brujas and in the process redefined bilingual bruja literature. This is a timely, heartfelt book that celebrates womanhood in a way that makes it necessary reading for every gender.

Pax Americana by Kurt Baumeister. With Trump in the White House, this novel is more than an entertaining look at the dangers of unchecked religion and politics. Yeah, call this one a warning that should be read by all. It’s also very entertaining and a superb addition to the impressive Stalking Horse Press catalog.

The River of Kings by Taylor Brown. I don’t want to imagine the amount of research that went into this book. However, I’m really happy that Brown did it, and that he turned everything he learned into a novel of interwoven narratives that is a celebration of a river, of people, and of language. This was so stunning that Brown immediately joined the ranks of “buy everything he publishes authors” before I’d reach the tenth chapter.

Human Trees by Matthew Revert. If Nicolas Winding Refn, Quentin Tarantino, and David Lynch collaborated on a film, the resulting piece of cinema would probably approximate the style of Revert’s prose. Weird? Yup. Smart? Very. Beautiful? Without a doubt. It seems Revert can do it all, and this is his best so far.

In The River by Jeremy Robert Johnson. The simple story of a father and son going fishing somehow morphs into a soul-shattering tale of anxiety, loss, and vengeance wrapped in a surreal narrative about the things that can keep a person between this world and the next. Johnson is a maestro of the weird and one of the best writers in bizarro, crime, and horror, but this one erases all of those genres and makes him simply one of the best.

The Sarah Book by Scott McClanahan. A slice of Americana through the McClanahan lens. Devastating and hilarious. Too real to be fiction and too well written to be true. Original, raw, and honest. Every new McClanahan books offers something special, and this one might be his best yet.

In the Distance by Hernán Díaz. This is the perfect marriage of adventure and literary fiction. The sprawling narrative covers an entire lifetime of traveling and growing, and it always stays fresh and exciting. At times cruel and depressing, but always a pleasure to read. I hope we see much more Díaz in translation soon.

Beneath the Spanish by Victor Hernández Cruz. Read the introduction and you’ll be sold on the entire book. Multiculturalism is fertile ground for poetry, and Hernández Cruz is an expert at feeding that space with his biography and knowledge and then extracting touching, rich poems and short pieces that dance between poetry, flash fiction, and memoir.

Some other outstanding books I read this year:

Dumbheart / Stupidface by Cooper Wilhelm

Inside My Pencil: Teaching Poetry in Detroit Public Schools by Peter Markus

Something to Do With Self-Hate by Brian Alan Ellis

Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions by Valeria Luiselli

There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé by Morgan Parker

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

The Yellow House by Chiwan Choi

 

PAX AMERICANA: Coverage on National Book Critics Circle Blog by Daisy Fried

Nov. 8 NBCC/Lit Mixer, plus new bios of Vladimir Lenin, James Wright, Alexander Calder and More

by daisy fried | Nov-06-2017


NBCC and Lambda are hosting a literary mixer next Wednesday, November 8th at Folksbier in Brooklyn. Details are available here.

John Domini interviews Jenny Erpebeck for Bookforum, and praises her novel Go, Went, Gone as “a fresh career benchmark.” In Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Domini reviews Kurt Baumeister’s Pax Americana, which he enjoyed for its “whack-a-mole action and rabbit-hole getaways.” Of Salman Rushdie’s The Golden House, Domini wrote, in The Brooklyn Rail, “For hours on end, I wanted no other company.”

NBCC VP/Online Chair Jane Ciabattari‘s Literary Hub column this week includes new biographies of Oriana Fallaci, Vladimir Lenin and poet James Wright, a surprising look at the Ku Klux Klan, and James McBride’s new story collection. Her BBC Culture column features a new novel from NBCC fiction awardee Louise Erdrich, a two-century look at hoaxing ending with “fake news” by NBCC finalist Kevin Young, and an anthology of translated poems edited by NBCC honored poet Martha Collins and former NBCC board member Kevin Prufer:

Jenny Yacovissi ​reviewed Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, Schieffer and Schwartz’s Overload: Finding the Truth in Today’s Deluge of News, Katy Tur’s Unbelievable: My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History, John Haskell’s The Complete Ballet: A Fictional Essay in Five Acts and Alice McDermott’s The Ninth Hour, all for the for Washington Independent Review of Books.

Rebecca Kightlinger reviews Kim Michele Richardson’s The Sisters of Glass Ferry, in the November 2017 Historical Novels Review.

Cliff Garstang reviews Jia Pingwa’s Happy Dreams, translated by Nicky Harman, for the Washington Independent Review of Books.

Frank Freeman reviews three books about Henry David Thoreau (Robert M. Thorson’s The Boatman: Henry David Thoreau’s River Years, Richard Higgins’ Thoreau and the Language of Trees, and Laura Dassow Walls’ Henry David Thoreau: A Life) for America Magazine.

Julia M. Klein reviews Pete Souza’s Obama: An Intimate Portrait for the Chicago Tribune and Thomas Childers’s The Third Reich for the Pennsylvania Gazette. She also reviews Masha Gessen’s https://www.bostonglobe.com/arts/books/2017/10/26/lessons-for-american-putin-rise/GzM9xcKPHk1YyW5eOhc50M/story.html”>The Future is History for the Boston Globe.

Karl Wolff reviews John Ashbery’s final book of poetry, Commotion of the Birds, for the New York Journal of Books

Steve Kellman, former board member and Balakian recipient, ​reviews Bill Mckibben’s novel ​Radio Free Vermont for the Texas Observer.

​David Nilsen reviews David Brazil’s poetry collection Holy Ghost from City Lights Books. novels

Hamilton Cain ​reviews Jed Perl’s biography of Alexander Calder: The Conquest of Time; The Early Years, 1898−1940 for the Barnes & Noble Review.

Balakian Finalist ​Roxana Robinson writes about teaching Madame Bovary for the New Yorker.

For the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, NBCC Board Member Katharine A. Powers reviews novels by Arundhati Roy, Gabriel Tallent and Margaret Wilkerson Sexton.

Past NBCC President and current board member Tom Beer‘s​ picks ​for the Times Herald-Record are, in honor of Veterans Day, all about war this week. And here’s his What’s New column for Newsday.

NBCC members note: Your reviews seed this roundup; please send items, including news about your new publications and recent honors, to NBCCCritics@gmail.com. With reviews, please include title of book and author, as well as name of publication. Make sure to send links that do not require a subscription or username and password.​ We love dedicated URLs. We do not love hyperlinks.

Pax Americana Reviewed by Critic John Domini for Vol. 1 Brooklyn

 pax-americana

These are dark times for black comedy, especially if a humorist takes on American politics. A mere novel, it would seem, can never match the Real World. The problem clearly occurred to Kurt Baumeister, because he took his nasty jibes to another world. The title of his bleak yet bubbly Pax Americana smacks of satire, but also sketches a power structure that doesn’t quite match up with our own. Obama never happened, in Americana; rather, 2009 saw the Third Inaugural of W. Bush, who soon took his Iraq war across the Middle East, all while various FOX-Newsy dreams came true. Baumeister’s US has a secret police, known as “Internal Defense,” and ultra-rich Evangelicals, something like Joel Osteen, who work in close collusion with the US government. But Nirvana for the One Percent has come under threat, as the novel opens. A left-winger has taken the White House, rules are getting rewritten, and worse yet, a new computer program named Symmetra seems to remove the human need for God. The chemistry whiz who cooked up the stuff is of course beautiful (with a mythic name, Diana) and the Internal D duo sent after her (seeking information, too, on other Threats to the Republic) are a buddy-movie odd couple: one so Christian he won’t use obscenities and the other a connoisseur of both dirty words and what they represent. There are whack-a-mole captures and rabbit-hole getaways, and both hunters and prey are forced to see that they’re merely the pawns of faux-Christian fat-cats tucked away in bunkers like “Bayousalem.” Could Diana or her work tear down the whole crooked charade? Could one of pursuers turn from the Dark Side? As the novel works out its answers, it relies a bit much on dialogue, sometimes getting redundant when it strives to be snappy, and it falters a couple of times in its attempts to deepen character. By and large, however, Baumeister succeeds in delivering the deep chill he intends: that of a world in which “evil and… good… were just as passé as faith.”

***

Pax Americana
by Kurt Baumester

Stalking Horse Press; 375 p.

John Domini’s latest book is MOVIEOLA!, linked stories, on Dzanc. In early 2019, Dzanc will publish his fourth novel, The Color Inside a Melon.

Pax Americana Reviewed at The Brooklyn Rail

Kurt Baumeister’s Pax Americana

The current political panorama will undoubtedly produce some outstanding critical fiction. Thankfully, we don’t have to wait long because some of it is already here. Kurt Baumeister’s Pax Americana, his first novel, is a strange hybrid narrative that weaves together a science fiction drama with a hilarious thriller and sprinkles the mixture with heavy doses of literary fiction, sociopolitical commentary, and satire. The result is an ambitious novel that somehow pulls it all off while demonstrating a level of creativity that can rarely be found in debuts.

The year is 2034, and Dr. Diana Scorsi, a brilliant tech developer, has developed a program called Symmetra, with the capacity to synthesize all the world’s religious knowledge into a single spirituality. The benefits of this, especially in a world racked by religious divisions, are boundless, so she plans to give the program away for free. Unfortunately, before she can do it, Scorsi is kidnapped by Ravelton Parlay, an unscrupulous rich man moved by the money that lands in his pockets thanks to the reigning mix of Christian extremism and capitalistic opportunism, which is known as “Christian Consumerism.” Parlay has hired Internal Defense agent and Christian fanatic Tuck Squires to find Scorsi, and he succeeds, but when so much is at play, every situation is a power struggle, and hidden agendas constantly threaten every plan set in motion.

The above synopsis barely scratches the surface of Pax Americana. The world created by Baumeister is large and complex. Geopolitical realities have shifted into a maelstrom of bizarre alliances after a war with Iran and the sudden end of the Republican political dominance of three decades. Symmetra is at the center of everything because, while it was designed with one thing in mind, it has the potential to become the most powerful and effective propaganda instrument in history, and the results of that would clearly benefit whoever is controlling the program. The result is a threat of another world war. Mixed in with this mayhem are a plethora of characters, healthy doses of humor, plenty of tension, and a sprawling narrative rich in political and religious undertones:

If Symmetra was real, it would compete with God for man’s worship, and why would the Lord allow a thing like that to enter the world? Unless, of course, He hadn’t or had, rather, against His own will, as part of the End Times, as part of teaching man his final lesson, giving him over to Satan so that he might see where the path of evil would invariably lead. Which meant that if the Symmetra was real, and it did what the specs said, it might not actually be the work of man at all. It might be part and parcel of the powers of darkness.

Despite the heavy ideas and touchy themes Baumeister juggles in Pax Americana, and the fact that it comes in at almost 400 pages, the narrative moves forward at breakneck speed and is as readable as a novella thanks mainly to two elements. The first is the author’s knack for dialogue, which helps carry a lot of the action and allows him to steer clear of heavy explanatory passages that would have bogged down the story. The second is the diversity, humor, plausibility, and depth of backstories, which include that of almost every character in the book as well as the nation itself:

By 2034, Bobby Jindal had spent twenty-two years as Governor of Louisiana. In that time Jindal had presided over six Category 5 hurricanes—Biffy, Poffy, Tippy, Albertine, Screwy, and Lu-Lu—the repeal of gubernatorial term limits, and a Golden Age of Christian Capitalism. Headquarters to Righteous Cheeseburger along with numerous Christian oil companies and the burgeoning Christian high-protein gator-farming industry, Louisiana’s coffers filled in the Jindal years, not just because of reductions in social spending but long-sought tax breaks that incentivized wealthy individuals, religious entities, corporations, and admixtures they’re off to relocate to the Bayou State.

While there is plenty of humor, action, and science fiction, what ultimately makes Pax Americana feel timely and necessary is that it reflects an augmented, somewhat cartoonish version of the current political panorama while simultaneously playing with the possibilities of a parallel political history that might have stemmed from the real/fictional George W. Bush administration. Furthermore, this intricate text of hidden agendas, evil wishes, violence, and religion does a superb job of exploring the flaws of religious devotion, uncontrolled consumerism, and patriotic ardor, especially the impossibly dark and scary part of the Venn diagram where all three meet.

Pax Americana is an absurd book, but not too absurd. In fact, the preposterousness found in its pages reverberates with warnings about the possible outcomes of some of the tendencies we’re reading about in news websites every day. This is a book that imagines the future of America based on a different past, but which shows things that our future might push out of the realm of fiction into that of reality, and that makes every laugh produced by its pages a true triumph.

CONTRIBUTOR

Gabino IglesiasGABINO IGLESIAS is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail

 

http://brooklynrail.org/2017/09/books/Kurt-Baumeisters-Pax-Americana

 

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.