Anchor Books, June 2007, $13.95
James P. Othmer, a Mahopac resident and former executive at the megalithic advertising firm Young and Rubicam, hits his stride on page one of The Futurist and doesn’t let up, delivering a wickedly deft satire that is by turns hilarious, touching, foreboding, frightening—and consistently brilliant. The novel cuts a swath through political culture, national governments, corporate hegemony, religious fundamentalism, mass media, advertising, activism, fashion, Faith B. Popcorn, Bill Gates, and assorted other major players. Even NASA isn’t spared.
We meet Yates, a “delusional, sociopathic prognosticator” (his girlfriend’s words), in the first-class cabin, sipping Maker’s Mark. He’s en route to a scheduled appearance as a VIP speaker at the Futureworld Conference, where he will mingle with the stars (corporate, political, and movie), utilizing his legendary talents to jump-start tomorrow for the ravaged Central Business District of Johannesburg, South Africa. But in flight, Yates discovers a note from his girlfriend tucked in his laptop case. She’s left him—The Futurist—for a sixth-grade history teacher. Yates ponders the irony. In Johannesburg, he secludes himself in his hotel room, turns away the complimentary hooker who shows up at his door, and, instead of writing his speech, lays siege to the minibar.
One cocktail hour leads to the next and Yates decides it’s enough already with the future; he’s tired of logging frequent flyer miles and dispensing “prepackaged bullshit” in exchange for fame and money. The speech he delivers, written in a fever, proclaims that he doesn’t have a clue as to what the future holds. He knows nothing. Intent on committing career suicide, he declares himself the “founding father of the Coalition of the Clueless.”
Booed offstage, shunned by Futureworld attendees, Yates is handed a keycard and told to go to a room. There he meets the two Johnsons (Johnson & Johnson?), middle-aged white men who work for either A) the US military; B) a multinational corporation; C) an anti-terrorist group that likes to play rough; or D) some combination of the above. The Johnsons want Yates to do what he does, or did, only they want him to do it for them. Exclusively. He’ll travel the world and report to them via e-mail. He’ll have a personal travel agent available 24/7 and a credit card with no preset spending limit.
“He had wanted to walk away from it with dignity. No, that’s not true. He had wanted to destroy himself, perhaps with dignity, but implosion was the primary goal. And now this, an option that is utterly devoid of dignity and likely to lead to the darkest of all possible worlds. Which is precisely what the jilted, hungover, morally confused Yates finds so compelling. Why not? Why the hell not?”
Yates is on his way. But the plan to ruin himself backfires almost immediately. People the world over respond to the Coalition of the Clueless, and Yates is more popular than ever. Someone builds a website. He begins receiving e-mails signed by that other well-known prognosticator, Nostradamus. Yates travels to Greenland. There, he hooks up with Campbell, an old college buddy whose wealth dwarfs that of Bill Gates and who is addicted to watching the “spectacular calving of ’bergs from the great ice sheet” in the pristine bay outside his window. Campbell also enjoys taking verbal abuse from his Inuit girlfriend, who spits out strings of truly poetic profanities while lobbing household objects in his direction.
Yates flees from Greenland to Italy, then to a remote island in Fiji, and finally to a war-torn country called Bas’ar (Iraq, anyone?). There, life gets really weird; the only thing even approaching any kind of consensus reality exists in manufactured sound bites and staged video clips to be beamed out to the world in an attempt to bring big business and development to Bas’ar even before the war is over. When Yates resists participating, things get way past weird.
Othmer has done a marvelous dissection of early 21st-century culture, tossed the pieces into a blender, and poured out a first-rate satirical novel in which tomorrow is to die for.