David Shafer’s debut Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is commonly called a “techno-thriller.” And while it is, technically, the tale of a secret war to control all the world’s digital information, it transcends its categorization by being character-driven, sidesplitting, erudite and absurd. Plain old “techno-thriller” just doesn’t cut it, and the book should rightfully be called something else; New York Times critic Dwight Garner suggests “novel of the summer.”
“Mr. Shafer has written a bright, brash entertainment, one that errs, when it errs at all, on the side of generosity, narrative and otherwise. It tips you, geekily and humanely, through the looking glass,” writes Garner in a rare rave review.
“It’s a platypus,” Shafer says by phone at home in Portland, Oregon. “That was the word I used in the beginning to convey the difficulty in initial categorization, which would probably doom it to ‘techno-thriller’ only. A little bit snobbishly, I was afraid of that. I have gotten over most of the snobbery – I read a lot of thrillers now – and found that those who read for excitement read a lot, and they read early. I’m glad to have the people who bought it in an airport because it looks like a thriller, those who stuck by it when it turned out to be a little more novelistic – and I even understand those who feel duped.”
On Thursday, October 23 at 6 p.m., Shafer will present Whiskey Tango Foxtrot at Oblong Books in Rhinebeck. The event, which is free and open to the public, will feature a reading, question-and-answer session and book-signing.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is the story of three 30-somethings adrift in a dastardly digital world. Lelia Majnoun is a Persian-American non-profit worker who stumbles across a mysterious facility in remote Myanmar; her visa is swiftly, silently revoked. Leo Crane, the unbalanced scion of a game corporation family, is about to lose his job as a preschool “play facilitator” in Portland, Oregon on account of erratic behavior, soon to begin publishing an ecstatic blog. Unlikely self-help guru (and Leo’s estranged friend) Mark Devereaux is all set to shill his book on daytime TV – making sure to plug the latest, greatest invention of technocrat James Straw, who’s bankrolling Mark’s ascent for reasons unclear.
“It’s really a story about three real people, mental health, addiction, family dynamics, some of that sort of self-help…and they’re all trying to be better people…but the ways they go about it are different,” Shafer says.
From London to Dublin, New York City to the high seas, these three are about to come into contact with one another and a dark force known only as the Committee, which plans to privatize people’s personal information through a tremendous force of techno-terrorism. Their only opposition is Dear Diary, an underground network of idealists whose barracks are after-hours IKEAs. “‘They’re ideal. They’re right beside the airport, they can sleep 80 comfortably and if you’re hungry, there’s the meatballs. Kidding. Don’t eat those meatballs. They come in on pallets,’” Shafer writes.
Dear Diary has its sights set on Leila to join its ranks, Leo a little less so, Mark least – but he is trying. “Had he ever taken advantage of Leo? Mark thought not. He borrowed money a few times, but he’d paid back almost all of it. And anyway, anyone who knew the two of them in those years could have told you that Mark did more emotional heavy lifting for Leo than straight guys usually do for each other. Like when Leo’s Mom and Dad and the greyhounds perished in the fire. Or when it became apparent that Leo’s bookstore was doomed, and Leo’s sisters called Mark and asked him to go up to Rhinebeck and talk him down and out of it,” Shafer writes.
As with most of the many places named in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, its author has a special connection to Rhinebeck. Born and raised in New York City, Shafer spent summers in Dutchess County with his grandparents. The long-term residence of his grandfather, the late Frederick Q. Shafer, a beloved professor of Religion at Bard College, and his grandmother, Margaret Creal Shafer, now houses the Written Arts Program and Bard’s literary journal, Conjunctions.
For the record, Leo’s failed Rhinebeck bookstore isn’t based on Oblong. “I was more imagining it to be in Germantown. There was a bookstore, and is still a book business run by my high school English teacher, Ken Hubner: Main Street Books, a small independent bookstore with much browsable stock – just what one imagines when thinking of an erudite small-town bookshop. Ken Hubner is alive and well, I think he still sells books, but I made it Rhinebeck because of name recognition. The word carries more information for certain readers,” Shafer says.
Shafer says that he’s excited to return to Rhinebeck to share his work. “Some of the personal connections made over social media and with old friends – I hadn’t anticipated that. My writer fantasy had many other forms of vindication, but it turns out to be very [different],” and the best of all is “connecting with the people who like the book,” he says.
That Whiskey Tango Foxtrot has surprises enough to satisfy thriller-seekers and literary fiction fans alike should be ample enticement. But just in case, if not, Shafer says: “The whole book is a palindrome.”
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot author David Shafer, Thursday, October 23, 6 p.m., Oblong Books & Music, 6422 Montgomery Street, #6, Rhinebeck; (845) 876-0500, https://www.oblongbooks.com.