Chicagoan Kathleen Rooney is no stranger to either politics or publishing, and she launches an excellent one-two punch with her novel O, Democracy, a compelling story about a young politico in the midst of a quarter-life crisis.
In this emotionally impactful novel, Rooney has written about what she knows, and that insight shines brilliantly in these pages. A former staffer for Senator Dick Durbin, Rooney has expertly captured the inner workings of government, the wizardry behind the curtain, the stuff most of us are afraid to look too closely at: the glacial pace of change, the two-faced personas of glad-handing politicians, the overly idealistic young hopefuls who staff offices while jockeying for position as close to their favorite politician as possible. Indeed, the novel is autobiographical, and in crafting this story, Rooney clearly has drawn on her experience in Durbin’s office.
Rooney, who also is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press, a nonprofit publisher of literary work in hybrid genres, knows how to tell a good story. Her publishing acumen is evident in O, Democracy, which is tightly written in colorful detail rich with emotion. Indeed, the story rings true and feels authentic in just about every aspect.
O, Democracy traces the professional coming-of-age of Colleen Dugan, a twenty-something junior staffer who (like Rooney once did) works in the office of “the Senior Senator from Illinois.” Dugan works in the Senator’s press office, one of many young staffers who long to do something important with their lives. But, far removed from any position of power, Dugan finds herself driving all over Illinois advancing poorly attended media events, answering phone calls from obstinate constituents, writing first-draft press releases, and handling other menial tasks, much the same as the even younger interns in her office do, day in and day out. Making policy, setting strategy, driving political agendas—all of that is way above Dugan’s pay grade.
Set in 2008, when the “Junior Senator from Illinois” is running for President (Rooney never actually names either Barack Obama or Dick Durbin at any point in the novel, though their identities are very thinly veiled and therefor clearly recognizable), O, Democracy captures the “Yes We Can!” optimism that Dugan and her colleagues feel toward liberal politics in general as well as the individual professional angst that Dugan herself feels. And it is this paradox that largely provides the tension in the story.
Struggling to make herself recognized as a valuable asset in the office of the Senior Senator from Illinois while honoring the office and his position, Dugan finds herself in possession of information that might or might not advance the Senator’s election bid. What she does with that information will seal her fate.
At times funny, at times heartbreaking, O, Democracy captures the angst and antics of Dugan and her colleagues as they navigate the muddy waters of Illinois politics. Much of this angst is palpably cringe-worthy. Indeed, watching Dugan make false steps and missteps, her earnestness and eagerness overwhelming any sense of political savvy she might possess, is painful, like watching someone trip badly on the sidewalk, tumbling face-forward, knees and hands bloodied and bruised.
It is in capturing the behind-the-curtain reality of politics and in drawing Dugan as an imperfect, multi-faceted person that Rooney shines. Several other characters also are compelling in their authenticity, and these people come together to create a rich cast that drives the story forward.
Rooney does well weaving subplots into, through, and around the main storyline, creating a world that is easy for readers to identify with. In addition, with its insider view, O, Democracy feels somewhat voyeuristic, as though readers have been given a back-stage pass to Illinois politics. In this, Rooney has crafted a novel that is nearly a real page-turner.
Nearly. Rooney has a distinct, unique writing style. It is a style that readers will likely either love or hate. Her writing is peppered with oblique references to people, places, and things, many of which go unnamed. Instead, readers are left to puzzle out what or whom Rooney is referencing. For example, in describing one of the main characters, she writes that “Sometimes he gets taken for the mononymic lead singer of a reggae-inflected British rock trio popular in the late ’70s and early ’80s.” Music fans of a certain age may well know who this is supposed to reference; others, however, are left in the dark.
Similarly, Rooney later describes a selection of food at a picnic as “potato chips from a Chicago vendor whose mascot is a snackbag wearing sunglasses and playing a saxophone.” Locals and/or junkfood aficionados might get this reference, but others might not.
Such descriptions at first feel funny and clever, but soon begin to feel snarky and long-winded. What is the point of such obfuscation? Instead of saying “They pull up in front of the hotel where they always stay when they attend the [State] Fair, rising like an air traffic control tower above downtown Springfield,” why not just write that they pulled up to the Springfield Hilton? Why make readers work so hard to cipher out the author’s meaning?
This intentionally enigmatic style seems at odds with several interludes peppered throughout the book. Whereas oblique descriptions force readers to figure out whatever it is that the author is talking about, a dozen or so italicized interludes apparently designed to guide the reader toward a better understanding of the story pop up here and there throughout the book. These strange passages feel as though they come from a second omniscient narrator (ostensibly the country’s Founding Fathers), one who needs to make sure that readers fully understand where the story is going and what is happening with Dugan, as though readers are somehow unable to figure this out on their own and need a little extra guidance in order to comprehend the full story.
These unnecessary interludes, coupled with the long-winded, enigmatic descriptions peppered throughout the book do, unfortunately, serve to slow down Rooney’s otherwise well-paced story. But, in the end, these are stylistic issues, and whether they work or not will depend on the reader’s preference.
At bottom, though, O, Democracy is a winning tale built on strong characters living authentic lives in a richly drawn world. It is in these aspects that Rooney’s story shines, and they alone make the novel a worthwhile read.
April 2014, Fifth Star Press
$24, hardcover, 397 pages
—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen