Charlotte Rogan’s first novel, The Lifeboat, was a grueling, morally complex tale of survivors of an ocean disaster and a crowded lifeboat, in which we meet the main character, Grace Winter, as she stands trial for murder. As the novel progresses, details of her past emerge to reveal aspects of this unfortunate woman’s character and predicament that gradually complicate our understanding of just who exactly we are dealing with here. The novel was an extraordinarily accomplished debut, the sort of book that lingers in the reader’s mind long after the last page has been turned. Rogan’s second novel, Now and Again, though possessing a far less finely calibrated moral grid, has the same lasting power.
The story begins in the little town of Rosebud, Oklahoma, a place where a munitions plant, an industrial chicken farm, and a for-profit maximum-security prison are the main sources of employment. One day, Maggie Rayburn, an administrative assistant at the plant, discovers a top-secret report on how to manage the deleterious effects on workers’ health of the depleted uranium used in the artillery shells manufactured there. (” ‘Discredit the doctors,’ she read. ‘Flood the system with contradictory reports.’ “)
Until now Maggie has led an orderly, if not terribly fulfilling life with her husband, Lyle. He is a good man, though meek and rather dim, and he, too, works at the plant. Maggie more or less organizes his life along with that of her son, Will, an indifferent high school student, whose own tale is also part of the story. Maggie’s tidy view of the world begins to disintegrate with the discovery of the report; she takes it, hides it at home with the vague feeling she should do something with it, and quits her job — to her husband’s dismay: “Does that mean we won’t drive to work together anymore?” Lyle asks. It does.
Maggie gets an office job at the prison — and once again stumbles upon unwelcome information: At least one of the inmates is genuinely innocent, a fact known by the authorities but never revealed or acted upon. Furthermore, she comes across a draft of legislation touting the benefits of “three-strikes laws” for private prisons. (“Besides bringing in revenues upwards of thirty-thousand dollars per year, each new prisoner increases the pool of available labor . . . If workers don’t like the pay of twenty-five cents an hour, their attitudes can be adjusted by withholding educational opportunities, or the use of isolation cells.”)
Beset by an increasing feeling of responsibility for addressing these wrongs, Maggie sets off on a personal mission, leaving her family and heading off for Arizona to track down retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. And there we shall leave her, and leave, too, her puzzled husband and son, to make their own way through the novel, absent her overly controlling hand.
Meanwhile, Dolly Jackson, a midwife at a women’s health clinic some twenty miles away, is seeing an increased number of babies born with grotesque birth defects, which, she begins to believe, are connected to the munitions factory. She learns of a medical report that has been altered from the original to conclude falsely that the use of depleted uranium in munitions has no harmful effects on those who come in contact with it. She, too, wants to take action.
Dolly’s and Maggie’s points of view provide two of the thirteen angles from which the story is told. Other eyes we see through belong to Lyle, Will, a rather oily evangelical minister called Pastor Price, and a number of soldiers stationed in Iraq. For while all this is going on in Oklahoma, the war in Iraq is blundering along, with the “surge” — or the “New Way Forward” — of 2007 having just been declared and with it extended tours of duty for thousands of soldiers. Among them are Dolly’s fiancé, Danny Joiner, four other enlisted men, and Captain Penn Sinclair. They are all involved in an action that leads to the death of a number of soldiers, including one of their pals, a death for which both Penn and Danny hold themselves accountable, rightly or wrongly. We follow these men when they return to the U.S., bearing shattered spirits and minds and, in one case, a damaged brain. They also embark on a mission of exposure, setting up a website to reveal the truth, not only of their fatal action but of the war’s countless other snafus, cover-ups, and dirty dealings.
This is only a glimpse of all that goes on in this book — there are many more characters and subplots. Some are very funny, some, downright heartwarming, and some will make your blood boil. Taking the broadest view, Now and Again is about the abuse of power and the uses of spin; the social and political marginalization of whistleblowers and their unenviable lot in the community; and the nature of responsibility and the difficulty of knowing what the right course really is. The book’s epigraph, drawn from Kierkegaard, pretty much sums that up: “Do it or don’t do it — you will regret both.” Rogan works at her mordant theme through black comedy, in which those in authority, whether in business, politics, or religion, are shown to be maestros of euphemism, waffle, and doubletalk: Fighting is “human kinetics,” senseless death becomes a “magnificent contribution,” and for-profit prisons and the exploitation of inmates’ labor are “market-based solutions.” All this talk, for all its steely bathos, is perhaps this acerbic novel’s most realistic ingredient of all.