In the wake of the 2012 election, as conservatives sought a return to electoral success, Jim Geraghty lightly chastised them. "Hey, remember how everybody on the right decided after the excruciating debacle of the 2012 election, we had to focus on the culture?" he asked in the Feb.15, 2013, edition of the Morning Jolt, his daily morning political newsletter. "It's mid-February, so about three and a half months since this discussion began. Anyone seen any new cultural offerings from the Right?"
Geraghty, though a contributing editor at National Review since 2004 and very much a part of the movement he gently upbraided, nonetheless faulted the movement’s neglect of American culture. Because of this neglect, liberalism forms the cultural background of most elections. If this does not change, he and others have argued, victory will continue to elude conservatives.
At some point, Geraghty decided to answer his own call with The Weed Agency: A Comic Tale of Bureaucracy Without Limits. His first novel, the book centers on "[t]he gargantuan, ever-growing, ever-less-accountable, impossible-to-uproot federal bureaucracy." Geraghty believes this to be "the sleeper issue of our time," as the bureaucracy’s intrusiveness, unresponsiveness, and inefficiency angers conservatives, frustrates liberals, and chastens idealistic youth.
The book traces the life of the Agency of Invasive Species (a fictional division of the Department of Agriculture) from its Carter-era inception to the present day. Though Geraghty admits that this agency does not exist, several similar agencies do. Geraghty aims for an instructive mix of fact and fiction, bolstered at times by the unusual but helpful use of citations for some seemingly outrageous devices and allusions.
Geraghty hardly beats readers over the head with polemics. His easygoing, breezy style translates into eminently readable fiction. He gives us real characters, for example, who convincingly advance his narrative: Adam Humphrey, the weed agency’s head, a calculating master of bureaucratic inertia who nonetheless genuinely cares for his subordinates; Jack Wilkins, Humphrey’s protégé; Nicholas Bader, a Republican congressman with a bitter vendetta against Humphrey stemming from his own failed attempt to eliminate the weed agency during the Reagan years; and Lisa Bloom, Jamie Caro, and Ava Summers, a trio of young professionals who enter the agency in 1993. Each character gets a full arc.
Two additional qualities elevate "The Weed Agency" above other political fiction. The first is Geraghty’s eye for detail. As a stylist, he is adequate; as a humorist, he is superb. Telling minutiae pack the book’s pages, rewarding both the casual and the careful reader. Some, like references to the Wall Street Journal’s affinity for pointillist art, and the recent popularity of the single em-dash in vapid news articles ("…government workers who keep the wheels of government turning are brave, righteous, dashing—and yes, even stylish."), reveal themselves more readily than others.
Yet even the more veiled references—the momentary fear of a Vietnamese immigrant when he mistakes an overheard "VC" for "Vietcong" instead of the intended "venture capitalist,’ Weyland-Yutani and Oceanic Airlines, two famous fictional corporations, being clients of a consulting firm—also provide rewarding chuckles to the initiated.
Geraghty has a knack for capturing the conservative perspective of Washington’s recent past. Ambitious Reaganites compromise and prioritize away their small-government zeal. D.C. obsesses over sexual harassment and similar matters during the Lewinsky scandal. Gingrich revolution and Bush-era Republicans morph into unprincipled hacks. Geraghty enlivens this big history not only with his own characters, but with funny-but-true cameo-caricatures of real politicians: Al Gore’s robotic personality; Newt Gingrich’s frenetic futurist/historian; Bobby Jindal’s garrulous genius.
Occasionally, one encounters a narrative thread—like one character’s foray into Silicon Valley, or a rebar-swordfight atop an unfinished building—whose purpose may seem uncertain. But even these require little patience of the reader, as Geraghty delivers the payoff quickly. It all adds up to a humorous and depressing look at Washington that makes a great case against bureaucracy, delivered by someone who clearly knows his subject matter.
Jim Geraghty has, in short, crafted a work of fiction so accessible and entertaining that it could advance conservatism culturally. Let’s hope that it does, that Geraghty’s efforts inspire others to do the same, and that this isn’t his last venture into the weeds of fiction writing.