July 06, 2010
In his debut novel The Futurist, James P. Othmer demonstrates a talent for biting satire, gorgeous prose, and dark humor that, to me, calls to mind another ad-man-cum-novelist, Joseph Heller. Holy Water, his prescient new novel, does nothing to alter my impression.
Jason Chambers, writing at 3G1B and here, calls Holy Water a “fine book: funny, smart and strangely hopeful for revolution.” I agree, and I’ll add that I wish more writers shared Othmer’s ability to so ruthlessly and engagingly portray the patent absurdity of corporate America.
I chatted with Othmer last week. Here is a transcript of our far-ranging discussion:
G.M.O.: Holy Water is probably the first work of lit fiction to reference Spoon on the first page.
J.P.O.: Are you sure someone in Austin didn’t get to it earlier, perhaps in the acks?
I wouldn’t know…I’m not that hip.
Me neither. I rely on much younger friends for that kind of stuff. For all I know, Spoon is a polka band.
I’m more of a Kenny Rogers guy
Nothing wrong with Kenny Rogers.
I wondered if you had music informants.
I have friends who come over and give me burned CDs in exchange for exotic beer and my bitter world view.
Sounds like a fair trade to me. So what’s your favorite exotic beer? Any recommendations?
I’m liking the Capt. Lawrence out of Pleasantville. Anything Dog Fish Head works for me. I’m all about the high alcohol content, until I vomit.
And once you vomit?
Once I vomit, it’s strictly Coors Light and Kenny Rogers.
A match made in heaven, if heaven is Branson, Missouri. But we digress. Henry Tuhoe, your protagonist, has very hip taste in tunes. Do you?
I love music, but I know so many people for whom it’s a religion. I envied their obsession and occasionally their taste, and I wanted my protagonist to have that sort of relationship with, as the kids say, the hip music folks. Similar to my relationship with books.
You convey that nicely.
Thanks. Showing one’s music cred on her sleeve seems to be more popular with Gen Xers, but if the recommendations are good, brag away. Again, I’m the same way with books, not necessarily being an aficionado, but constantly looking for recommendations from others.
I think it’s also something that men of our age do to retain their perceived youth…the Gen X equivalent of buying a convertible.
Which is why I’m talking to you, hip writer of books and player of Kubb.
I am so not hip, but it’s nice of you to say so.
Kubb was a revelation. I never realized how much fun it was to throw wood at other pieces of wood. Anyway, I want Henry’s iPod.
I believe Henry’s iPod is now in the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame.
It deserves a better final resting place than Cleveland. Yates, the eponymous futurist of your first novel, is almost a superhero. A superhero in crisis, sure, but an alpha male. Henry Tuhoe, on the other hand, the protagonist of Holy Water, is a nebbish, a paradigmatic beta male. Where on that spectrum does James P. Othmer fall?
I’m a flawed super hero. Like Captain Bedwetter or something. Or a bit of both, because both represent in a lot of ways, two diametrically opposed sort of worse-case scenario versions of me.
I can see that. There’s definitely commonalities between Yates and Henry.
Well they’re both completely disillusioned with where their life has taken them. Henry’s “conscientious fulfillment of limited expectations” and Yates’s crises of conscience.
Your characters travel to far-flung places How much actual travel have you done? Have you ever been to the Himalayas, or Greenland?
The good part about the soul-selling ad-guy portion of my life is I got to travel quite a bit. However, not Greenland or the fictional kingdom of Galado. Galado, by the way, is a combo of Swift’s Lagado and Bhutan.
Were you in Bhutan?
Alas, no. I was trying to get a magazine I was writing for, Conde Nast Portfolio, to spring for the trip to do a piece on Gross National Happiness. But my editor got fired while I was doing a piece on the ad festival at Cannes and the magazine went under soon after. Would’ve been sweet.
So how did you research it?
Henry did what I did. Google. Lonely Planet. Some incredibly poorly produced travel videos…lack of travel money (post advertising) has forced me to invent countries rather than visit them. And it’s a lot of fun. Soon I will have to take it to the next level and, you know, rule one.
It would be fun to be a dictator. And I hear you about the lack of travel. Although we do get to Connecticut occasionally.
Connecticut is the next Prague.
Ha! The prince of Galado reminded me of a cross between one of the princes in Syriana and the Ben Stiller character in Dodgeball. And I mean that as a complement
And a little Kim Jong Il, at least the version I saw in Team America. Sometimes I wonder if I’m crossing the line with absurdity, but then I turn on the news.
I was just discussing with my friends how Kim Jong Il really did a great job reading 1984 and making it a reality.
Except for the nuclear capability and the sneak attacks on South Korean subs, he’s sort of awesome.
He sure makes my heart go pitter-pat.
If he’s still alive, that is.
He does this bad-ass despot stuff, but manages to look like a drag queen Dr. No.
Ahmadinejad and Kim Jong Il seem to have the same stylist.
Ken Pavès, is what I heard—the guy who does Jessica Simpson’s hair.
Don’t pick on her. Poor girl’s been through so much. How dare you, John Mayer!
I may be confusing my U.S. News with my US Weekly.
Doesn’t matter. Both will be out of print by August. You read it here, first.
I don’t get the appeal of John Mayer…or Justin Timberlake, either, for that matter.
I just hope I live long enough to see the broken down, lonely, sexless versions of Mayer and Timberlake. Though JT is a surprisingly funny dude.
Yeah, he is funny. I’ll grant him that. I just wish he were nicer to poor Jessica Biel. Maybe it’s the name “Jessica” that somehow attracts bad boyfriends? As for the broken-down Mayer, that will also happen by August.
We’ve really gone high-brow here, huh?
Yeah, we should probably leave John Mayer to wither into sexless obscurity and get back to the matter at hand. Holy Water opens with a river on fire; basically, oil on the water has burst into flames. Eerily prescient, as that could happen in the Gulf any day now.
Yeah. Bad news for humanity. But great for me and my 1631 readers. What’s happening in the Gulf is what’s happening in my magical kingdom of Galado. Corporate hubris and neglect run amok.
Yup. Colin Powell, for one, spoke about water as the new oil, in that future wars will concern water.
I didn’t know the Colin Powell line, but I believe it.
It’s amazing, when you stop and think about it, that the one most integral thing we need for survival falls out of the fucking sky.
I liked the idea of having water as a theme, something natural and abundant and free being polluted and sold and fought over and, in the case of Holy Water, bottled and sold through a back-office call center in a draught-plagued nation.
I read an article in The New Yorker a few years back about how the Southwest U.S. will have huge problems with water supply in the years to come—that dividing the states into pleasant shapes, the way they did, rather than creating borders based on water supply, was a terrible idea (although great for kids’ U.S. state puzzles).
I read that article as well. Chinatown was ahead of the curve on that.
“The water commissioner drowns during a drought…only in L.A.”
In fact, the history of the town I live in, Mahopac, was corrupted by water. In 1871 neighborhoods were moved to make way for reservoir to provide H2O to New York City, and Boss Tweed had his corrupt fingers all over it.
That happened a lot upstate. Whole towns were drowned to build the reservoirs.
Ashokan, right? I have an abandoned novel that is set in that period. I like it, and there’s not one joke in the whole thing.
I think it’d be a fertile topic for a novel. The idea of saying goodbye to a hometown, forever. Sad and kind of creepy.
My dead book starts with a house being pulled by horse and capstan through a valley, on timbers.
I don’t know what a capstan is.
John Mayer does.
He’s going to need to, as his career is toast in a few weeks. But enough about water shortages, corporate corruption, and ruination of mankind…let’s talk about big boobs.
Stay classy, New Paltz.
Meredith, your book’s most buxom character and its emotional center…
Meredith, killer admin by day, big boob web goddess by night…
She’s Joan Holloway for the 21st century.
She has a great speech I’m too lazy to look up, about how the societal role of men is in flux.
Her speech does make some salient points about the state of modern man. A friend of mine was the head of research for Leo Burnett in Chicago and they conducted a world wide man study…
That sounds like a reality show.
She spoke to thousands of men in dozens of countries and was kind enough to share.
Masculinity is a theme in Holy Water. For example, there is much talk of vasectomies. I see the vasectomy as a rite of passage for fathers of a certain age, not unlike the self-mutilation ceremonies performed by some primitive tribes at puberty, perhaps also in Galado. At the risk of getting too personal: have you been snipped?
Well, Greg, no. I haven’t been snipped (the book’s original title, by the way)…
…but it certainly was in the suburban air in my part of the world and I thought it made for an interesting flash point. Have you had breast reduction surgery?
I made Jonathan swear never to tell anyone!
Does he perform that as well?
Evison does everything. I think he practices on the rabbits.
I hope I got my snipped facts right. I certainly had a lot of access to those who were, who will and who might. Some of whom were also my music muses.
I have, in fact, been snipped. It’s very much not a big deal, although it did bring up a lot of stuff for me beforehand. I think you do a nice job conveying that sense of anxiety.
Thanks. I’m a chameleon when it comes to conveying anxiety.
We’re at 2000 words, so we should probably wrap this up.
Depressing, especially in light of the fact that I’ve written about 500 in the first 6 hours of today.
What’s next for you? Book tour? Movie deal? Extradition to Galado?
I’m working on a novel about the financial world.
This makes me happy. I think you have a keen insight into the business world that many fiction writers lack, and I’m psyched for the next one.
Oddly, not a huge book tour in the U.S. I did a lot for Adland and have decided to write instead of self promote. Which is not at all like me. However, while I’ve been invited to exactly zero writer’s festivals or conferences in the U.S., I’ve been asked to attend three in Australia this summer. Bringing the whole family, which means I’ll lose about $5k by the end of August.
We novelists do live high on the hog. Well, have fun Down Under. And thanks for stopping by TNB.
Well thanks, and thanks for having me. Love TNB. Whatever the hell that is.