Monday, March 2, 2009



This shout from Copenhagen is one that has been lingering, unvoiced, in my throat since Ronald Reagan was laid to rest, accompanied by glowing newspaper reports of the accomplishments of his presidency. Baffled, I asked myself whether I had slept through the years of his administration. I hadn’t known that we loved the man and his scary astrology lady, hadn’t realized how great his accomplishments were. I still haven’t.

Anyone still baffled by the lavish newspaper accolades and ornate ceremony which accompanied that gaudy laying to rest of a B-actor turned American president might be relieved to know the case has been reopened by Michael Neff in his debut novel, Year of the Rhinoceros (Red Hen Press, 2009). Described as “a surrealist and tragicomic tale of courage, love, betrayal, and murder, based on a true story pieced together from (Capitol) Hill hearings, reports and interviews with OSC (Office of the Special Counsel) staff who remain anonymous,” the novel is about – in Neff’s own words – “The agency distorted by the Reagan White House into a force employed to discover and betray whistleblowers…” An agency which Neff notes “still operates today” (quotation from the mid-W years.)

In an interview ( conducted by Cicily Janus at Eclectica, Neff says, “Like many in this country, I am tired of the purposeful revisionism on the part of some Republicans regarding the presidency of Ronald Reagan. They want to make him over into their version of Kennedy, mythologize him into something he wasn’t. Reagan’s regime was one of the most corrupt in American history, especially when one takes into account the number of public officials caught exercising their right to criminal behavior. The Nixon era was more publicized because of Watergate, but the Reagan era was a free-for-all of rampant fraud, waste, and abuse of power at all levels. Also, there is the ridiculous myth that Reagan was responsible for the collapse of the Soviet Union. That is a little like giving Nixon credit for the first U.S. landing on the moon. Reagan just happened to be making rehearsed speeches at the time of the collapse.”

Pulitzer-Prize winning fiction writer Robert Olen Butler says, “Year of the Rhinoceros is a compelling, utterly original novel that savagely and hilariously explores what went wrong in this country a couple of decades ago, and that keeps going wrong even now.”

Neff’s novel is about an idealistic Reagan supporter, taught from childhood to love “The Gipper,” who is employed by a small congressional agency to protect brave individuals who seek to blow the whistle on government corruption. Dominated by the White House, however, the agency lures and betrays potential enemies of the administration to clear the field for their corporate clients and protect them from public scrutiny. The year is 1984 – a year that evokes Orwellian terror in post World War II hearts.

Michael Neff himself worked in Washington, D.C. in the 1980s and ‘90s as a government staffer during the Reagan, Bush Sr. and Clinton years.

So is the book fiction? “The setting is real,” says Neff. “The circumstances are real. The struggles of the whistle blowers are real and their prosecutors are real – just the names changed to protect the guilty. The plot is fictional but based on a true story… One particular way I incorporate facts into the story involves the pseudo-legalistic manner in which whistle blowers were forced by Reagan’s agency to run a gauntlet of tests to determine authenticity. Of course, no one ever made it through the tests… It was all a game, one designed to prevent Reagan and his corporate pals from suffering the loss of any important contracts.”

But does what happened under Reagan even begin to compare with the excesses of the Bush administration?

“I recently had a long talk with Tom Devine, director of the Government Accountability Project in Washington, D.C., one of the top three watchdog organizations,” says Neff. “And he told me the Reagan group was more energetically evil than the Bushies – who are mostly morons and evaders. It was during the Reagan era that corporate America began taking over Washington.”

So let us think twice before we begin to shout out praises of famous dead men like Reagan – and maybe take a look first at The Year of the Rhinoceros, a tale of another kind of 1984, the real year.

P.S.: In 1994, Michael Neff created and began to direct, a popular internet publisher and community portal for scores of literary journals, independent presses, filmmakers, poets and writers, serving content to millions of readers worldwide and links from over 40,000 other websites. Readers are urged to visit – it’s a virtual literary mall.

Greetings from this ancient kingdom!
Thomas E. Kennedy (

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