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

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.