Say to yourself, I AM GOD.
That’s right. Imagine it.
Now, do some tricks, try out Your powers.
Michael B. Neff’s new novel, Year of the Rhinoceros begins with this invitation. The next page warns that “[t]he human mind cannot grasp Infinity, and neither can it contain Washington.” Even though I live less than an hour from our capitol, have visited museums and monuments, and attended plays, readings, weddings and lectures there, I’m persuaded to believe the author. He presents a place that literally exists yet cannot be grasped, contained, or trusted. He combines real-life places and problems with outrageous fantasy and life-altering deception. The result is a disturbing, acidic statement about the way things are done (or not done) in Washington. Although it is labeled a novel, the fact that Mr. Neff has worked in D.C. makes his book all the more alarming. He weaves real places and sometimes real people, most notably Ronald and Nancy Reagan, with absurd and tragic fictional events in such a way as to make the reader wonder if what is seen and heard can be believed.
His main character, Manny Eden, leaves his idealistic but in some ways pragmatic mother and very real hometown, Kenosha, Wisconsin, to interview for a job in D.C. Recently fired from Burger Chef for whistleblowing after his manager failed “to completely wipe the cheese blocks clean of bug larva,” Manny wants to better help “his country in a selfless way while serving his boyhood idol, The Gipper.” Manny’s mother informs him that she could probably get him a job at Ed’s Plant Emporium in Milwaukee, “just a plan b,” if he does not get this job. Manny leaves the bug larva and dirt of Wisconsin only to encounter them in much more dangerous and extreme forms in our capitol. His (and our) journey into unreality begins at the interview.
Manny is interviewed by Basil R. Hunsecker, who he at first felt “resembled Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon.” But after a few unsettling comments about the death of Manny’s father, the meaning of Manny’s middle name, and Manny’s “real goals,” ... Hunsecker looked like "a cross between a dead bass and a pissed off gargoyle.” This progression from recognizable human to something dead and monster-like is what the novel is all about. We travel through Manny’s year of the rhino and witness his transformation from young, patriotic crusader to a brokenhearted, voice-hearing patient in St. Elizabeth’s Psychiatric Hospital (another place that actually exists). We also see that of his love, Laney Dracos, and others from the Office of Whistleblower Counsel. Neff seems to suggest that Washington has insanity-producing effects on everyone who works there, no matter what their initial intentions are.
Although it is labeled a novel, the fact that Mr. Neff has worked in D.C. makes his book all the more alarming. He weaves real places and sometimes real people, most notably Ronald and Nancy Reagan, with absurd and tragic fictional events in such a way as to make the reader wonder if what is seen and heard can be believed.
Manny learns quickly, beginning on his very first day when it appears no one is available to train him or even hand him a training manual, that his new job is not exactly what he expected. He sees that those in the OWC do not serve the honest, justice-seeking, and threatened American worker but their own careers. They stubbornly adhere to laws designed to protect the government and employers no matter what the truth may be. In fact, the OWC is concerned with the truth only in so far as it helps them fit each case into the category of speech that is “Not Protected.” Truth with a capital T is the least of their worries. A colleague explains how the OWC and the American government work: it’s “the Theory of Sneaky Shit Ascendance… the Shit Rises to the Top Theory … you haven’t figured out that sneaky shits rule the universe? …All you need is one sociopath shithead on top. Give this thing the ruthlessness and hunger of a snake, and if certain employee scales don’t match, it sheds till only the favorite scales remain. Get it now?”(This we’ll-do-what-we-want-no-matter-what attitude feels uncomfortably familiar and all too real considering the administration that recently vacated the White House.)
Neff uses his characters’ names to heighten the sense of unreality. Throughout the novel, names change or characters are given additional nick names that represent their current state. Manny, whose full physical description is never given - perhaps to allow the reader his/her version of Everyman and whose last name, well, is obvious, is called Mr. Garden of Eden, choir boy and finally the delusional Mr. God who wants to create “a new race of utopian beings… Homo Utopius.” Elaine Dracos is Laney, Mzz Dracos, Vendetta, Tammy Pon, Miss Dragon. Or characters are referred to as “The,” as in The Deejah (named after the princess of Mars) or The Beast and The Hun. A certain group of workers is called The Bimbo Dogs. Luna Goodpal, in contrast to what her last name suggests, is referred to as “the Deputy Counsel from hell.” Even Mr. Hunsecker’s office is called “The Presence Chamber.” (And like Manny, I have not read Gogol.) All of this works to divide the characters from their humanity, their sanity, and at least in Manny’s case, the employees from their supposed goal: to protect and aid workers who shed light on dangerous or illegal practices. Indeed, the OWC appears to do exactly the opposite of its stated mission.
Almost immediately after learning he’s been hired, Manny receives a letter from a secret society, The American Watch, claiming they know that the OWC is corrupt and that they are on a mission to expose this fact. This becomes Manny’s quest as well. Laney tells him, “We have windmills to conquer.” All letters from The American Watch are signed “Rochambeau,” “historic spine of in-utero America” according to Manny. Having not been a very attentive student of history, I had to look that name up. He was a celebrated French General who assisted George Washington during the Revolutionary War. Manny visits the statue of him in LaFayette Square and eventually dubs Laney “The American Sword Goddess” after the figure that appears on the statue’s base, again twisting what is real and see-able with the imaginary.
All of this works to divide the characters from their humanity, their sanity, and at least in Manny's case, the employees from their supposed goal: to protect and aid workers who shed light on dangerous or illegal practices.
During his interview, readers learn that Manny developed a particular “coping habit” when he was six years old. Neff delves into Manny’s imagination where just about anything can and does happen. One example is when Manny suspects he is witnessing the collapse of the universe which is quickly followed by a full-grown man becoming small enough to fit into a briefcase. “Glass paperweights blister and pop. Desk calculators knead off keys to wax smooth as stream stone. Richard Nixon effigies shatter mid-air into puzzle bits before spitting through the lobby like pan-fried mercury -- the totality of phenomena arguing for a speck of black hole, an asthmatic cosmic nostril winking into existence somewhere to the northeast of Manny…” Then “… two men … approach from his right. Both in standard dark suit. One lugging a briefcase of black leather… They pass Manny Eden in silence, penetrate the lobby, and make straight for … the Presence Chamber of Hunsecker.” Then another character appears. “He cannot stare directly at the Luna Goodpal chimera…. All he can do is back off as she erupts from the horizon of cosmic nostril, but even from a distance of several feet he is singed by the hot penumbra of her edges ... ”
These imaginings become wilder and more intense as the novel progresses and Manny loses more of himself to the all powerful force of D.C. Near the end of the novel there’s a passage where Manny, calling himself “Mr. God,” attempts to rid America of its dependence on foreign oil by blowing up an office building in Bowie, MD, owned by “the House of Saud.”
Manny’s year-long experience in D.C. is extraordinary, terrifying, and thankfully, fictional. But it creates, at least in this reader, a fear that our nation might be run in ways closer to the way it’s run in this novel than we’d like to believe.
Keep your search engine of choice open as you read, you’ll need it for the vast number of references you’ll come across (unless you’re a historian, politician, and science fiction buff yourself) and experience a wild ride through our capitol with the tragic-comedy Michael B. Neff provides as guide.