In his debut novel, Lassek, a veteran government worker and community and political organizer, writes cynically about what a burgeoning bureaucracy can do to well-meaning individuals.
Set in the late 1960s, during the waning days of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society anti-poverty campaign, Lassek’s novel tells the story of two men entering government service. Jeff Vinton, a Vietnam War veteran looking for direction in his life, steps into a post as welfare director in Harney County. Bill Sergent starts out as a staffer for a political consultant but ends up following a newly elected governor into office. Vinton finds ways to exploit the welfare system to benefit the poor in his region, including many Native Americans. Sergent sees the inefficiencies in the human-services bureaucracy and seeks to streamline it. But neither of these political neophytes accounts for the entrenched racism and self-interest within government that will sink their well-intentioned efforts. “The alternative to diffused power is concentrated power,” explains veteran state Sen. Jake Hammond, the Greek chorus in this tragedy. “Now we get back to Jefferson. A strong man on a white charger can be one dangerous sonofabitch. That’s the reason we set up all those autonomous units of government, units impervious to the change of administrators, to the will of one man.” It’s a message that Lassek returns to again and again. Both Vinton and Sergent have attributes that ultimately derail their missions. Vinton is altruistic but too new to have any feel for the local political climate; compounding that is the fact that he’s distracted because the woman he loves has deep-seated psychological problems. Believing too strongly in the governor he serves, Sergent is more concerned with furthering his political career than promoting innovative policy. Lassek has created complex protagonists in whom readers will invest. But, to the novel’s detriment, characters wind up subservient to the author’s hammering home the recurrent message about the ills of government gridlock.
An interesting character study that ultimately gets buried under a heavy-handed attack on government bureaucracy.