Whistleblower Shibboleths: Mimi Albert on Michael Neff’s Year of the Rhinoceros

Michael Neff, Year of the Rhinoceros, Red Hen Press, 2009

Michael Neff’s debut novel is a serio-comic jeremiad, set during the very long eight years of the Reagan administration. While extolling the life and fate of one young Manny Eden, whom we first meet as a resident of the notorious St. Elizabeth’s hospital for the mentally ill in Washington, DC., Neff is able to take a poke at the many shibboleths and mannerisms prevalent during the Reagen years, and the distressing period for our nation during which Reaganomics thrived. Neff’s writing is frequently reminiscent of other notred political satirists, from Voltaire through Vonnegut, and sometimes even calls forth the spirit of Tom (not Thomas) Wolfe, who manages to put in a personal appearance in an early chapter. Prior to Manny Eden’s incarceration in St. Elizabeth’s, (surrounded by “vomit-smelling couches” and loathsome fellow residents, male and female,) the reader learns that Eden was a bright-eyed idealist, newly arrived in DC to do his bit for the republic, although not necessarily for the Republicans. The novel shows us Eden applying for a job with an agency set up, presumably, for the protection of those heroes of our civilization, known as whistleblowers.

Today, that word clearly defines men and women courageous enough to stand up against the hugest corporate machines dedicated to the proliferation of tobacco, firearms, and what is humorously known as “individual liberties” of many different kinds–all liberties, in fact, which exclude such “excesses” as arms control, legalized abortion, abolition of the death penalty, and universal health care. In his quest to do his best for his country, the candid Manny falls into the clutches of a certain Mr. Hunsecker, who apparently recruits for The Office of Whistleblower Counsel in Reagan’s administration. This agency has, as framed by Manny Eden’s reveries and Michael Neff’s intricate prose, purportedly “helped a whistleblower regain his job at the Justice Department,” and Manny is eager to contribute his energy and intelligence to The Cause.

Eden’s subsequent career, which guides him straight into the padded intake cells of St. Elizabeth’s, (an institution which gained its greatest share of notoriety as being the place in which American poetic luminary Ezra Pound was detained for mental illness after siding with the Fascists during WW II), creates much of the fabric of this fast-paced, glistening novel. The plot is an amalgam of the recounting of various misfits, miscreants and “perky” misses who comprise the population of the Reaganesque and Washingtonian world of the 80s. Neff’s eclectic and rapid-fire prose reminds this reader of the history of the innocent Candide in the words of that great French cynic, Voltaire, and owes some of its literary debt as well to contemporary writers such as Vonnegut, Kesey, and the abovementioned Tom Wolfe. Manny chases Eden, integrity, women and happiness in that order, and finds himself in St. Elizabeth’s after Reaganomics spits him out with impunity, as it did so many others, along with their ideals.


Mimi Albert is a reviewer for venues such as the SF Chronicle, The American Book Review, and Poetry Flash. She has published two novels, and teaches three workshops in the writing of fiction for the UC Berkeley extension’s Post Baccalaureate Writing Program.

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