There are two kinds of people in Tim O'Brien's "America Fantastica": stupid crooks and crooks who aren't as smart as they think they are.
If that sounds like an Elmore Leonard or Carl Hiaasen crime romp, you're in the right territory. O'Brien, who made his bones with war novels such as "The Things They Carried" and National Book Award-winning "Going After Cacciato," has proven to be a chameleon with later books, channeling Stephen King with "In the Lake of the Woods" and Vladimir Nabokov's "Pale Fire" with smarty-pants "Tomcat in Love."
O'Brien hasn't published a novel since the sour "July, July" in 2002, and "America Fantastica" suggests he's now in the mood to have fun. By the fifth page, protagonist Boyd has left his job managing a J.C. Penney store, robbed a California bank, kidnapped the helpful teller who handed him the dough (her name is Angie and she may have a crush on him) and hit the road for Mexico. Over the next 450 pages (yes, it's too many), he will tangle with sarcastic thugs, villainous bank officials, a hippie from Eau Claire, Wis., and a fake Finn who thinks it's cool to watch Boyd's toes get broken. Much of this activity will happen while Boyd, who's the silent type, and Angie, who never stops talking, are holed up in a mansion on a Minnesota lake.
A good judge of character, Angie has Boyd pegged from the start with observations such as, "You don't look okay. You look like somebody getting ready to eat Brussels sprouts."
Part of what makes "Fantastica" such fun is O'Brien's tangy, slangy dialogue, which zips the story along — another way in which O'Brien echoes Leonard.
It's hard-boiled and funny, even when the characters only pop up for a few scenes, as in this exchange between a bent cop and a bank manager: "The guy's a piece of stupid wrapped up in cowboy clothes. I wouldn't put money on him." / "I won't but maybe I'd put money on you."
Because crime is the focus of "Fantastica," O'Brien has many opportunities to bring together the wealthy and the poor. Boyd's desperate road trip, brought on by personal and professional losses, positions him as a 99-percenter who realizes the odds are stacked against him. Everything is rigged, his journey seems to say, so why not become a crook like everyone else?
That's where O'Brien hits some snags. "Fantastica" tries to connect its loony larceny to what's happening in America in chapters in which a group called Truth Tellers engage in "mythomania," spinning lies to keep the populace distracted from the dumpster fire that is American public policy. It's stuff like, "Timothy McVeigh had survived execution and was alive and well in Omaha, where he worked under an alias for a distributor of guaranteed inorganic fruits and vegetables."
The lies are achingly obvious and not terribly funny. Fortunately, those chapters are brief and, eventually, O'Brien's wayward characters stumble upon an innovative way out of the darkness of their lives: the truth.
By: Tim O'Brien.
Publisher: Mariner, 449 pages, $32.