Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History

Kurt Andersen's (True Believers) comprehensive history of American bunkum and balderdash, Fantasyland, is the work of a man with a particular picture to paint and a willingness to follow wherever the bizarre facts lead him. As he says, "I enjoy having my mind boggled." While it may have been sparked by the presidency of Donald Trump, Fantasyland puts the latest political pandemonium into the broader context of the origins of the United States--a country built from scratch "where all citizens were officially freer than ever before to invent and promote and believe anything. So Americans promptly began believing almost everything."

A longlist of religious sects, out-there beliefs and fruitcake leaders kicks off Andersen's history, and he rolls out their appearances with both facts and farce decade after decade. When Fantasyland hits his own early years in the 1950s, however, Andersen's range and depth of examples of American delusions grows exponentially. The border between real and unreal disappears in the minds of those endlessly in "pursuit of happiness." Access to broadly disseminated media makes every tangent seem like a big deal, and Andersen mines the mother lode.

After all his research, he concludes that "Donald Trump is a pure Fantasyland being, its apotheosis... a stupendous Exhibit A." If centuries of American hogwash are too frightening, Andersen attempts to leave us with some indication that the pendulum may soon swing back to sanity: "The good news, in other words, is that America may now be at peak Fantasyland. We can hope." Whether this forecast proves accurate or not, his look back is one of the most audacious and entertaining American histories on any bookshelf. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

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