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.

Motherhood & Art: Mimi Albert on Maria Espinosa’s Dying Unfinished


Dying Unfinished, Maria Espinosa, Wings Press

“We spend so much energy hiding from the truth,” Maria Espinosa writes in this splendid new novel, Dying Unfinished. Espinosa, whose previous novels include Longing, Dark Plums, and Incognito: The Journey of a Secret Jew, refuses to allow herself, her readers, or any of the characters in this tangled and absorbing story to hide. From the first page to the last, she uncovers the hidden motives, unspoken passions, and many disappointments that too often bruise people who have been together for a long time.

The narrative is delivered by a variety of voices framed by different combinations of characters during different periods of their lives and even on different continents. The novel opens with Eleanor, a mother and daughter as well as a mistress and wife, traveling on a commuter train from suburban Long Island to meet her lover in a New York City bar. We glimpse Eleanor as a beautiful young woman as the story unfolds, being courted by Aaron, the man who becomes her lifelong husband as he attains prestige in the difficult world of modern art. Theirs is far from a simple story of adultery and retribution; Aaron is chronically adulterous and the relationship between them, while not quite “open,” seems not only to continue but to thrive in the warmth shed by their mutual deceptions.

When children come into this marriage (Jesse, Howard, and Rosa), they respond differently to their parents’ world of shadowy truths and half-told lies. Howard becomes practical and hard-working leaving the more artistic and volatile Jesse to encounter problems. Jesse falls ill with polio in one of the many epidemics of the 1950s; he also rebels against his family’s web of deceptions by making his own choices and being true to his own desires. But most volatile and most important to the story, is the daughter, Rosa, several years older than her brothers and too gifted and spirited to be contained within any conventional restraints, even those of literary description.

The story of these lives and the art created by them might seem overly complex were it not for the clarity with which the narrative is told. Espinosa takes the reader directly behind the eyes of her characters; she leads us into difficult relationships (Eleanor’s with her lovers, Rosa’s with a variety of men to whom she turns for solace as she grows into a troubled womanhood). But each episode is concisely contained and crystal clear in its telling as when Rosa finds herself in a whirlpool of self-destruction leading to her becoming a desolate ward of a mental institution; these scenes are gripping, vividly depicted, but never overdone.

By the time the book comes to its conclusion, the reader knows that somehow mother and daughter have achieved the reconciliation they have always sought achieving it through motherhood and art as has Espinosa becoming the first publisher of her own mother’s poetry, which heads many of the chapters of Dying Unfinished. It is a fitting homage to the struggles of these two women and a fitting ending to a difficult yet creative journey.