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Writing the American Dream: An interview with novelist Mike Palecek

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I read Mike Palecek's latest novel, The American Dream, as I traveled to visit family. The experience of enduring both airport security (sic) and the sanitized airplane environment served an appropriately eerie backdrop for a book like this. No more than a few degrees from what currently passes for reality, The American Dream is a societal vision that hits too close to home(land) to be called a futuristic satire. Channeling both Orwell and Bill Hicks (with perhaps a touch of Chuck Palahniuk), Palecek has created more than a powerful and engaging novel; he has let loose a global wake-up call. At first glance, Palecek hardly fits the "global wake-up call" profile. "I started out what some might call a good American," he says. "I grew up in Norfolk, Nebraska, home of Johnny Carson, watching his show on TV, playing football, baseball, driving a '56 Chevy station wagon." From there, Palecek's restlessness led him to a monastery in Oregon, the diocesan seminary for the archdiocese of Omaha in Saint Paul, a life-changing meeting with Fr. Dan Berrigan, and getting arrested at Offutt Air Force Base, outside of Omaha. "It was maybe 1980 or '81," Palacek says of his first arrest. "I remember it raining. I sat down and cried. It was just this overwhelming feeling that I wasn't part of America anymore and even though I had to do it, I was going to miss it." I interviewed Mike via e-mail during the first week of January 2007. Mickey Z.: What does the phrase "American Dream" mean to you? Mike Palecek: When I started to write this, what I was thinking of was "dream" as in sleeping dream. The possibility that so much of what we think of as our reality might be false. That is, a lot of the "conspiracy theory" stuff, which I find fascinating. They have places for people who think like this: either a mental institution in Iowa or in the middle of a subway station in New York City, screaming, handing out leaflets. MZ: So, what comes to mind when you hear "American Dream"? MP: I have begun to see that there are other takes on the "American Dream" thing. We really do pursue the American dream every day - the home, the kids, the job, the security. It's why my wife and I came here to Iowa from an Omaha resistance community after the last time I got out of jail. We wanted a nice place for the kids. And now I find myself trying to educate the kids about all the anti-war stuff - trying to radicalize them, trying to have it both ways. Well, the idea that having or pursuing this American dream when other dads and moms and kids are living in poverty or under our bombs is obscene. And finally, I see the American dream in the sense of a carrot and stick; that the wage of a laborer has dropped over the past decades and the wages of the bosses has risen dramatically, also that corporations exploit foreign labor for even more profit. Well, we still pursue that dream, pile on more jobs, drive faster to pick up the kids, cook faster, drink more, whatever it takes to keep pursuing that carrot, even though we're never going to reach it. MZ: How did your perception of the American Dream shape and/or impact the writing of your latest novel? MP: While I was writing this book, I was working in a town not far from here, about twenty miles, very small, very conservative, Dutch Reformed, and each day as I came to work I thought about the book, over this past summer, and I wrote the book to fight. To fight against this culture I live in, to fight Bush, to fight the "support the troops" mantra. Even as I envision a "good" future for my children, and even as I sit right now in relative comfort in the middle of America, I see America as an enemy, the America of my neighbors, my extended family. I see George W. Bush as an enemy. I fight now against America, not because I believe in any other country or ideology, but because I believe in working for the poor, for peace. MZ: With the novel as your current weapon of choice? MP: I could pick up a gun. Maybe I'm too lazy. I really don't think I could live with killing somebody. That would really ruin my day. And writing a novel is such a poor excuse for fighting, in some ways, so abstract, but it is a way, and it is a way that maybe I can handle, can do, and maybe it will do some good, some day. (To order The American Dream, please visit: Mickey Z. can be found on the Web at
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