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Winter 2017 — Book Review by Charles Rammelkamp
"All the Dark We Will Not See"

All the Dark We Will Not See
by Michael Neff
Serving House Books, 2016
$ 14.95, 332 pages
ISBN: 978-0997101041

A revised version of his 2009 novel, Year of the Rhinoceros, Michael Neff's All the Dark We Will Not See (a much better title, evocative of sinister secrets, corrupt conspiracies) is a dark comedy about Washington politics. Set in 1984, George Orwell's apocalyptic year, the drama involves the Office of Whistleblower Counsel (OWC), a fictional government agency established during the Carter administration in the wake of the Watergate scandals, whose mission is to protect government employees who rat out illegal and unethical behavior and practices in federal agencies.

The trouble is, the practices of OWC are themselves questionable, and this is the basis of the plot. The main character is one Edison Eden, nicknamed Garden of Eden by his boss, Basil Hunseker. As Edison's name suggests, he is an innocent starry–eyed idealist who has come from the sticks (Kenosha, Wisconsin) to the nation's capital to "make a difference." But right away he gets stuck in the usual office politics you find in any bureaucracy. There are the federal managers first of all, "Morlocks," Eden calls them, dream killers, and then there are the yes–mammals who blindly obey, thinking to "get ahead." Nothing is accomplished!

The OWC is your typical bureaucracy, with its petty tyrant of a manager, Basil Hunseker, its weirdo marginalized old guy, Worm Quigley, the suck–up Boyden McCarthy and his counterpart Babs Easton, so much a brownnoser that she gets her coveted office–assistant job to Hunseker. A variety of others such as Varsana Pardo and the office managers, who always make one think of watchdogs, growling and snapping — Yolanda Peel and Deejah Thoris — fill out the staff. And then there are Becky Bergstein and Laney Dracos, also OWC investigators. More on them later.

Above them all is the Counsel himself, Ashley Madison, who, though the king of the hill of this outfit is nevertheless resentful because he feels he deserves a cabinet–level position. In his fantasy life he is Lord Madison, a man with a true pedigree. He is meant for greater things, in other words, his right. Notably, Edison Eden has similar fantasies, though his are of being president, God, or a composite comic book superhero, all of which amount to the same thing and indicate just how relevant these fantasy lives are worth.

The novel opens on the main protagonist, Edison Eden, in 1992, incarcerated in Saint Elizabeth's, the renowned mental institution in Washington, to which he has been sentenced after pleading insanity for — well, that's one of the mysteries that unfolds during the course of the story. What crime did he commit? What drove him to it?

But at the start of the tale, Eden, who for seven or eight years has been "denied many things, including the solace of hope, hell, God, and comfort food," is playing chess with John Hinckley, the man who shot Ronald Reagan, likewise doing time in St. E.'s for a crime he committed while not fully in control of himself. As Hinckley observes to Edison, they "both still love the women who imprisoned us. No?"

So who is Eden's Jodie Foster? It's not exactly the same thing, but Edison Eden is obsessed with Laney Dracos, aka Tammy Pon, aka Mzzzz Dracos, who also works at OWC. The idealist Eden has always fallen for the saintly Joan of Arc types. He develops a mad crush on a whistleblower named Kate Linderhart, only to have Hunseker ridicule and trivialize her in a staff meeting. The same goes for Laney Dracos, who, along with Becky Bergstein, another OWC staffer, form American Watch, a shadowy, mysterious outfit in the Deep Throat tradition that fits right in with the hush-hush world of Washington politics.

For much of the novel, until Laney reveals the secret of American Watch to Eden, it is one of the piquant mysteries of the story, a shadowy, ominous presence that alarms the middle manager Hunseker. Needless to say, Laney's heroic purity is what captivates Eden. Rochambeau is the code name American Watch uses to send messages, referring to the French nobleman who played a major role in helping the colonies win the American Revolution. Notes from "Rochambeau" strike terror in the heart of the Morlock, Hunseker.

All the Dark We Will Not See is an absurdist dark comedy in the Catch–22 style. A Catch–22 is a dilemma from which there is no escape because of mutually conflicting conditions. Just as Yossarian in Heller's novel wants to be grounded for being crazy and is caught in the Catch–22 that anybody who is concerned for his own safety cannot be crazy, so in All the Dark We Will Not See, we learn the difference between "free speech" and "protected speech," such that, essentially, most whistleblowers' speech is not protected for the very fact they are blowing the whistle. In excruciating but entertaining detail Hunseker goes through the various procedures meant to facilitate whistleblowing, which ultimately amount to roadblocks and CYA, since everybody knows that to abet whistleblowing is to commit career suicide.

This contradiction at the heart of the OWC is what drives American Watch and ultimately leads to Eden's loss of innocence — and his freedom; leads to a murder and a suicide.

A final chapter gives a follow–up to the characters' fates, often consistent with their characters.

Make no mistake, as in all good dark comedies there is a deadly serious intent in All the Dark We Will Not See. In his preface, Neff dedicates the book to "those who resist," the people who put their lives and careers on the line to "do the right thing." A former federal employee in DC, Michael Neff has lobbied in the senate for greater whistleblower protections, All the Dark We Will Not See is his testimonial to the perils of "snitching." Written before the Edward Snowden and Julian Assange/Wikileaks secrets were published, All the Dark We Will Not See is especially relevant today.


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