America Fantastica

Tim O'Brien

October 23, 2023 
The following is from Tim O'Brien's America Fantastica. O'Brien received the National Book Award for Going After Cacciato. Among his other books are The Things They Carried, Pulitzer Finalist and a New York Times Book of the Century, and In the Lake of the Woods, winner of the James Fenimore Cooper Prize. He was awarded the Pritzker Literature Award for lifetime achievement in military writing.

There are two Santa Monicas. One is a fairytale of spangled gowns and improbable breasts and faces from the tabloids, of big money and fixed noses and strung-out voice teachers and heiresses on skateboards and even bigger big money; of movie stars you thought were dead and look dead; of terraced apartment buildings cascading down perilous yellow bluffs toward the sea; of Olympic swimmers and hip-hop hit men and impresarios of salvation and twenty-six-year-old agents backing out of deals in the lounge bar at Shutters; of yoga masters and street magicians; of porn kings and fast cars and microdosing prophets and shuck-and-jive evangelists and tattooed tycoons and considerably bigger big money; of Sudanese busboys with capped teeth and eight-by-ten glossies in their back pockets; of Ivy League panhandlers, teenage has-beens, home-run kings in diamonds and fur coats, daughters of sultans, sons of felons, widows of the silver screen, and the kind of meaningless big money that has forgotten what money is.

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There is that.

But start at the pier and head southeast until you reach a neighborhood of tidy, more or less identical stucco houses separated by fourteen feet of scorched grass. In a number of these homes, you will find families, or the descendants of families, who have lived here since the mid-to-late forties. For them, upscale was a Chevy in the driveway. Mom mixed up Kool-Aid at ten cents a gallon, Pop pushed used cars at a dealership off Wilshire Boulevard, Junior had a paper route, Sis did some weekend babysitting. Nowadays, the house Pop bought for $37,000 will fetch just under two million in a sluggish market, but as Pop loved to say, secretly proud, “What kind of house do you buy with the profit? A pup tent? A toolshed in Laguna?” Sis drowned in 1995. Pop’s heart ticked erratically until fifteen minutes into the twenty-first century—or so Junior would later claim. Mom kept chugging away, fat but indestructible, fortified by milkshakes and late-night Cyd Charisse movies and a well-mannered suitor whose aspect compared favorably with an aging Cesar Romero.

As for Junior—whose name was not yet Boyd Halverson but soon would be—he did well for himself. An ambitious window-shopper of a child, a Peeping Tom just outside the magic kingdom, Junior dreamed a boy’s glamorous dreams, reading hungrily, faking what he had to fake. He shilled his way through three semesters at USC, dropped out, vanished for two years, showed up again in Santa Monica with a Purple Heart and a Silver Star, slept for a month, and then awakened to find himself on the metro desk of a newspaper for which he had once been a twelve-year-old delivery boy. Still a window-shopper, yes, but in journalism, Junior—now Boyd—discovered a calling. After all, since boyhood he’d had practice ogling other people’s lives. And thus over time this led to that: Pasadena, Sacramento, a botched marriage, Mexico City, Manila, almost a Pulitzer, Evelyn, wedding bells again, a year in Hong Kong, nearly two years in Jakarta, Teddy’s arrival, then eventually back to L.A., where at last he collided with the sudden, brutal, and well-earned catastrophe he’d been patiently anticipating for decades. In a single afternoon, Junior’s fortunes spun upside down. “You’re a liar, man, and a rotten human being,” said a ponytailed copyboy, for which there was no reply but to shrug and step aboard a downward-bound elevator. Liar? For sure. Rotten? Pretty obviously. Outside, standing unemployed on a blindingly white California sidewalk, Junior was struck by the apprehension that he had dropped something—a small watermelon, say, or his life, which lay pulpy and putrefying at his feet—after which came excessive booze, lethargy, and a glorious romance on the rocks. One humid evening, gazing into the wary eyes of a barmaid he’d twice bedded, Junior found himself startled by the discovery that he had slipped into the sour melancholy of his thirty-ninth year. “You kind of depress me,” said the barmaid, who nonetheless continued filling his glass for another month or so.

Drifting north, Junior washed up in small-town Fulda, twelve miles off the Oregon border.

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He signed on with JCPenney.

He expected nothing and the world delivered. A whiskey at breakfast, a whiskey at lunch, a double at day’s end.

To recognize one’s own life as a breathtaking failure was an experience Junior would recommend to all. Relieved of illusion, he was relieved of disappointment. There was, in fact, a harsh cleansing effect that accompanied the knowledge that he could do no worse than he had already done. Dry goods demanded little of him, and for close to a decade Junior was content to erase himself amid the bustle of returned sweaters and a four o’clock golf league. The years did not speed by. But they did pass. He wasn’t happy and he wasn’t sad. Having grown up on the slow side of some extremely fast tracks, he now surrendered to the becalmed world of mediocre-anywhere—a triumph for a man who had once played fetch with Robert Stack’s dog outside an ice cream parlor on Ocean Avenue. He boiled his eggs for three and a half minutes. He smiled at people and dressed neatly. On occasion he wrote poetry. Some of the poems were about dropping things; some were about make-believe sappers and concertina wire; some were about Evelyn; and a good many were about the .38 caliber Temptation Special he kept in a Kleenex box on the top shelf of his bedroom closet.

There were few inquiries about his past. There were none he couldn’t graciously dodge.

He mowed his grass, paid his bills, prepared his meals, dressed up as a clown for Krazy Days sales, and casually wondered if he would ever find the desire to dive back into the disaster of his own reckless creation. And then in July of his ninth year in Fulda, Junior began having trouble sleeping at night. He roamed the house and talked to himself. He contemplated suicide. A great deal. Constantly. He imagined holding up Community National Bank. His mother had finally died, which was part of it, but he’d also come to recognize that even the manager of a JCPenney store might have felony in his heart.

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He didn’t plan much—just the basics.

Boyd would rob the bank on a Saturday, leave a false trail into Mexico, then head home to attend to things he should have attended to long ago.


From America Fantastica by Tim O’Brien. Used with permission of the publisher, Mariner Books. Copyright © 2023 by Tim O’Brien.

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