A Geography of Secrets

By Frederick Reuss

September 2010, Hardcover
276 pages


Reviewed by Caleb Powell


When Frank Snepp’s memoir, Decent Interval, targeted the CIA for bungling the pullout of the US in Vietnam, the Pentagon took Snepp to court. At issue was whether or not Snepp breached CIA protocol, yet the trial also raised the question of whether public interest should trump state paranoia. In February of 1980 the US Supreme Court ruled against Snepp, the government confiscated all remaining copies of Decent Interval and forced Snepp to return his advance and royalties. Evidently, errors and incompetence must be hidden for the benefit of the people. Frederick Reuss’s latest novel, A Geography of Secrets, chronicles a comparable political apparatus. The novel introduces Noel Leonard, who works for the Defense Intelligence Analysis Center. He maps coordinates of an enemy hideout in Afghanistan and the results are tragic: bombs land on a school and children die. His employers do not seem concerned, thus Leonard endures compunction solo. Distance and sadness resonate on every page as A Geography of Secrets strikes a direct hit on the dark indifference within US intelligence.

Leonard’s culpability in the bombing of the school underpins his every reflection. The specifics are unclear: Is he solely to blame? Or does the guilt lie with his superiors? Leonard’s story alternates with an anonymous cartographer whose father may have been involved in covert actions in Southeast Asia and elsewhere. Conspiracies lurk: "They craft the memo, couched in enough classified material to guard against its being released while leaving the requisite chutes and ladders open for the downward transference of blame." "Chieu Hoi, or ‘Open Arms’, was a psychological warfare and propaganda program aimed at persuading Viet Cong to defect–in the jargon of war, ‘rally’–to the side of the American-supported South Vietnamese government. What my father did at the Chieu Hoi center, other than get spooked wandering around, he never alluded to." We learn interesting facts: "Romeo spying was a specialty of East German intelligence. Mostly, they used men and went after lonely secretaries in government and party offices. By the ‘70’s they were using women–Juliets–with, we now know, amazing results."  Regarding secrets, though, few are revealed, the cartographer muses, "…but I’d decided not to let on what I knew." And, for the most part, he doesn’t. I am not the only reader who suspects that within government there is, at minimum, a lack of accountability and an excess of mystery, but A Geography of Secrets never penetrates these secrets, it only illuminates their existence.

When Leonard does seek answers he receives platitudes: "Look, Noel, your job is maps, all right? Beginning, middle, and end. Not second-guessing. Just maps." "In the end, people don’t kill, the state does." "A good guy only has to think he’s right. A bad guy needs a dark, immodest agenda. An asshole just needs simple instructions and a gun." "Everybody would go out and talk if they could…" "Secrets don’t keep, they putrefy." Those in charge are "talking about oaths and secrets, infrared grubs and dead schoolchildren on the other side of the world." And as the novel progresses the reader experiences these frustrations along with Leonard.

Leonard’s guilt is shrouded in Catholicism. One of the more memorable scenes involves a prostitute in Switzerland: "She is more than pretty; she is beautiful in a way that hides in-woven suffering. A real person, unashamed of what she must do." This leads to an exchange where Leonard tells her, "I’m part of a covert operations cell that tracks and captures or kills suspected terrorists….We are part of the Joint Function Component Command for Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance and work out of the Defense Intelligence Analysis Center at Bolling Air Force Base….Not even my wife knows that." "You’re a real James Bond." He then asks, "Why don’t you like hearing people’s secrets?" She replies, "I am people’s secrets." What secrets will Leonard choose to tell his wife? What does he tell his priest? The answers add to the melancholy.

Description hinders the novel’s pace. Seemingly unimportant characters are introduced, breaking the tension. Pages are spent on a girl at L’Homme Fatal, Leonard stopping at the Wawa station on the Port Tobacco Road, and Leonard’s hole-in-one at the painstakingly evoked Geneva Golf Club. And when the anonymous narrator drumbles around the Marienplatz for a dozen pages, debating whether or not to disclose one more secret, I found myself becoming impatient. Reuss’s intent, though, is to expose little as he retains control, and the ending contains depth and surprise, revealing a method to the slowness.

In August of this year St. Martin’s Press capitulated to the Pentagon’s wish to destroy their initial print run of Operation Dark Heart, a look at covert operations in Pakistan and Afghanistan. As they did with Decent Interval, the government acted as censor. Mistakes continue, bombs drop, civilians die, generals wave their wands, and accountability stagnates. Perhaps Reuss’s novel tells us what we already know, that the US government has secrets, but as the government continues to exhibit insecurity, A Geography of Secrets can only be considered timely.