"A Geography of Secrets," a new Washington novel by Frederick Reuss

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By Daniel Stashower
Tuesday, September 28, 2010


By Frederick Reuss


276 pp. $25.95

"With his eyes open, knowing the consequences, he entered the territory of lies without a passport for return," Graham Greene wrote in "The Heart of the Matter." The line would not be out of place in "A Geography of Secrets," a thoughtful, beautifully written novel by Washington writer Frederick Reuss that tells the story of two men -- a defense analyst and a mapmaker -- and their struggle with the secrets that define them.

Much of the novel is narrated by the mapmaker, who remains nameless throughout. The son of a career diplomat, he suffers from a sense of permanent dislocation. As a child, he explains, "change came in the form of Allied Van Lines and huge wood crates stenciled with an APO address." As an adult, he still feels untethered. "It's easy to feel like a stranger in Washington, D.C.," he tells us. "Even with a house inside the Beltway, a family and a career, it's hard not to feel that you're merely holding down a place until someone else steps in to take over."

He finds solace in his career as a cartographer, bringing order and definition to a world in flux. "On a map, the user fills in empty space with his own imagined presence," he explains; "a map is a one-to-one encounter between a person and a terrain, an existential project. The best maps are mostly blank and make locating oneself easy."

When the novel opens, he catches sight of an unsettling secret that his father has carried to the grave. With a draftsman's precision, he begins looking for answers, attempting to locate himself in the blank spaces of his father's life.

Meanwhile, in a windowless office at Bolling Air Force Base, a defense worker named Noel analyzes satellite data used to coordinate military actions in Afghanistan. "He never aspired to a career in military intelligence," Reuss tells us. "Like his marriage to Pat, it just kind of happened. It wouldn't be fair to call him indifferent. He loves his wife. He also believes in the work he does. He's a technocrat. Utterly dispensable. It doesn't bother him. Nature itself is composed of a great many small, functioning parts."

Noel's assumptions about himself and his place in the universe face a bitter test when he is implicated in the errant bombing of an Afghan school. Guilt-ridden, he loses his bearings and finds he's no longer able to keep his top-secret job walled off from his everyday life. "Is it possible to stop being someone and become someone else?" he wonders. For all his analytical skill, he's so mired in the isolating culture of covert operations that he doesn't know how to begin the process of change. "Besides," he asks, "what is change when you're invisible?"

Reuss uses these interlocking stories to examine the collateral damage of a lifetime of keeping secrets, bringing a page-turning urgency to the interior dramas of two men, and raising provocative questions about identity and individual responsibility. He's fascinated by Washington's culture of deception, at one stage leading the reader on a brisk tour of unheralded landmarks where "secrets and watching have spilled over into history," such as the mailbox at R and 37th streets where Aldrich Ames made his drops and the booth at the Georgetown restaurant where a Soviet defector gave his handlers the slip.

These reminders of Cold War tradecraft appear quaint and somehow comforting when set against the satellite imaging and predator drones of Noel's DOD work, underscoring the manner in which even the business of secrets has been depersonalized by technology. To emphasize the point, Reuss provides longitude and latitude coordinates each time the scene shifts.

For all his fascination with the big picture, however, Reuss has a gift for seizing on his characters' inner lives, as when Noel, noticing sparrows trapped beneath the glass-domed atrium of the Pentagon City mall, wonders "if he is like the birds caught inside this shopping mall, trapped and living under false and artificial pretenses."

"A Geography of Secrets" has the texture and snap of a modern-day Graham Greene novel, painting a world in which even the smallest choices have devastating consequences -- and where, as one character tells us, "Secrets don't keep, they putrefy."

Stashower's most recent book is "The Beautiful Cigar Girl."

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