O, Democracy!

By Kathleen Rooney


Fifth Star Press
April 2014

Reviewed by John David Harding


Kathleen Rooney's first novel, O, Democracy!, is a robust roman à clef chronicling Colleen Dugan's stint as a senatorial aide during the 2008 reelection campaign of the senior senator from Illinois. Colleen is everything that a senatorial aide should be—capable, talented, aspirational. Yet there's no shortage of conflict in Colleen's world, from her complicated hatred for a bottle-blonde intern named J-Lock to her deflection of the unwanted advances of an intractable male superior. The Chief of Staff—whose sexual harassment of female employees becomes unsettlingly de rigueur at campaign headquarters—summarizes the plight of a political slogger like Colleen when he says, "You don't get to know. Don't you get it? You are not a person who gets to know." For Colleen, not knowing is akin to not using her brain, a hard pill to swallow for someone who has trouble sleeping at night because she simply cannot stop thinking about her relationships, her father (who is stationed in Iraq), and her campaign work. 

Guided at intervals by the disembodied, collective voice of dead presidents, O, Democracy! tracks the trajectory of Colleen's political career. By vocation a photographer, Colleen has little time to pursue her art as a member of the campaign's press team; she now dons her camera in service to her country. Her photographs neither belong to her—they are quite literally campaign property—nor are they artistically satisfying. Colleen does maintain some semblance of personal autonomy; rather than blindly following decrees passed down by stuffed shirts making three or four times her pay, Colleen bends the rules, but only just. She does what is necessary to keep her job. Inequalities—even in the office of a Democratic campaign—are glaring and pervasive, especially between grunts like Colleen and shot callers like the Chief of Staff.

Proper names of the uber-famous, of commercial name brands, and of poets and songwriters, have been redacted and replaced with clever placeholders. Considering the time period (circa 2007), there are obvious allusions, such as "the Junior Senator from Illinois" and "the Alaskan hockey mom." But others require a good amount of thought—or a Google search—to decode. The less-obvious references function like riddles and mostly concern Chicago-specific trivia or other assorted ephemera (for example, "potato chips from a Chicago vendor whose mascot is a snackbag wearing sunglasses and playing a saxophone"). What's refreshing is that these references aren't essential to understanding the plot. In fact, their ambiguity clears away the trappings of popular culture, providing direct access to the story itself.

In a recent interview with Chicago magazine, Rooney said, "I use the art and craft of fiction to make the story more interesting than real life, to get at the bigger truth of democracy and its institutions. I don't want people to read this novel just as a who's-who game." 

Still, it's admittedly fun to decipher the book's major players. One such example is the "Rapacious British Oil Company," a moniker for a company infamous for destroying entire ecosystems. During campaign season, the senator makes a play to rein in the RBOC's technically legal practice of dumping toxic waste into Lake Michigan. Because Colleen has a passion for environmental conservation, she is tapped to spearhead the attack. In a closed-door meeting with union reps and corporate execs during which the Chief of Staff employs political claptrap when expressing the senator's position, Colleen steps in and makes an impassioned appeal for the RBOC to salvage the remains of Lake Michigan's fragile ecology and compromised drinking water supply. Earnest and thoroughly composed, Colleen sounds less like a staffer than a congressional hopeful gearing up for the campaign trail. She says:

When I was in high school [ . . . ] two of our history teachers, this husband and wife, took us to see important labor sites here in the city. [ . . . ] They told us how at the height of the stockyards, they ran 500,000 gallons of river water a day through to clean them up, but that it all washed right back into the River. I threw a rock in and it bubbled up black. You guys must know this, too. That's why they reversed the Chicago River in 1900, to keep the slurry and the sewage from running all the way into Lake Michigan and poisoning the drinking water, even though the River was already wrecked. [ . . . ] It seems kind of sad that over a hundred years later, we still haven't realized that we shouldn't treat our waterways like open sewers, and we're still letting industry force us into these false alternatives.

The Chief of Staff, unmoved, feels rebuffed; afterwards, he snaps at Colleen, "What the hell got into you, Dugan?"

The plot really picks up when we meet the senator's Republican opponent, Congressman Ron Reese Ryder. Ryder is an amalgam of every duplicitous politician who fails to practice what he preaches. Although Ryder is running on an anti-gay, family values platform, he finds himself on the brink of a sex scandal after being caught on camera in a compromising position in a hotel men's room. Conveniently enough, the sex tape falls into Colleen's hands via her voyeuristic friend Ethan. Colleen thus faces an intriguing dilemma; she can either deliver the tape to the press, thereby demolishing Ryder's credibility (not to mention his political career) and ensuring her candidate's victory, or she can simply do nothing and the team can continue to run a clean campaign.

After being roadblocked at every turn, Colleen finally holds the power to do something meaningful, and it's up to the reader to decide at story's end whether she does the right thing. Although she believes that she can change the game, the consequences of Colleen's actions, specifically for her future, are indeterminate. This particular plot wrinkle pays tribute to Rooney's considerable powers of storytelling. Multilayered and imbued with deceptively simple, poetic language, the book's playfulness expands our expectations for literary fiction. O, Democracy! is a novel with a heart and a brain.

In Colleen Dugan we find a person grappling with the great promise of America, the promise that through hard work, determination, and honesty, you can do anything and be anything in a country that holds limitless promise. On the eve of the election of the junior senator from Illinois, America's first black president, Colleen catches a glimpse of an America that aligns with her ideals: "But in this moment, for this instant, she is living in a world where certain nouns are capitalized. Adversity. Romance. Chance. Death. Love. Hope. A world she has always longed for, where things actually matter." Colleen's unique patriotism—both sardonic and sincere—yearns for more than the passive veneration of America. It is a patriotism that demands better of those to whom the future of our democracy has been entrusted; not just the elected official, but the average citizen—ordinary people like you, me, and Colleen.