There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
About midway through Frederick Reuss’ fifth novel, A Geography of Secrets, a government worker tells a prostitute what he does for a living: “I’m a part of a covert operations cell that tracks and captures or kills suspected terrorists around the world.” It’s important to know that Noel, the man saying this, doesn’t have an ounce of Bourne in him. He’s a family man who lives in Arlington, likes practicing his golf swing off the GW Parkway, and handles those covert operations from a safe distance. But as the diplomats in Graham Greene novels make clear, government middle-managers involved in life-and-death decisions suffer torments all their own, and Reuss has a gift for evoking the existential tensions that give Greene novels their intellectual heft. Reuss brings a few twists to that brand of anti-thriller, too. One’s formal: The novel’s braided structure alternates between Noel and an unnamed government cartographer investigating his late father’s experience as a Foreign Service officer. (Noel’s story is in third person while the other is in first, which helps overcome the novel’s chief flaw: The two men can be difficult to distinguish, being middle-aged men who are about equally glum. The demeanor seems to come with acquiring a certain degree of security clearance.) Another twist is technological: Each chapter includes longitude and latitude coordinates that, keyed into Google Maps, locate the setting of each scene. The idea isn’t especially stimulating visually—the National Archives warehouse in St. Louis, it turns out, looks like a big warehouse—but it underscores just how much globe-trotting is going on, and emphasizes the lust for precision the two men share. The crises both men suffer are fairly mundane from a novelistic perspective. Noel feels guilty about an Afghan mission gone awry, while the unnamed cartographer has found a few skeletons in his dad’s closet. But Reuss remembers what B-list spy-thriller writers forget: When it comes to secrets, what’s interesting aren’t the facts being hidden but how their hiding affects others. So a small revelation about the cartographer’s dad blooms into smart scenes exploring the virtues of silence and relationships between fathers and sons. And for Noel, a family crisis and a job reassignment prompts him to realize how coglike he’s become in the federal intel machine. Reuss is particularly skilled at describing the scrim of spook culture that coats the entire D.C. area, from Alger Hiss’ old haunts to the anonymous research hubs littering the landscape, and he convincingly lays out the Heller-esque bureaucracies that seem engineered to squash dissent. After Noel impotently fumes about a perceived injustice, Reuss writes, “It was all part of the ebb and flow, the degeneration and regeneration of organizational substance. Pressure doesn’t rise to the top; it gets blown out sideways from the middle, where the tiers collapse on top of one another but leave the main structure standing.” Faced with a structure so dehumanizing, Reuss argues, it’s no wonder we keep secrets—it’s a hobby of sorts, a way of taking the business of being our more human selves elsewhere.