The Weed Agency, by Jim Geraghty

My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires and more slow . . .
 –Marvell, “To His Coy Mistress”

An economics professor at Virginia co-authored a detective novel, Murder at the Margin, as a way of teaching economics less dismally. The Weed Agency is that type of book, with the subject of the federal bureaucracy. As Geraghty explains in his Author’s Note, there is not a U.S. Department of Agriculture Agency of Invasive Species, but there are (1) the Federal Interagency Committee for the Management of Noxious and Exotic Weeds, (2) the Aquatic Nuisance Species Task Force, and (3) the Federal Interagency Committee on Invasive Terrestrial Animals and Pathogens. So, the AIS could exist without too much stretching.

AIS, the Weed Agency of the title, exists to study and control invasive plant species. (There is no mention of kudzu, a barely forgivable lacuna.)

The author’s ear for comedy, practiced over the last decade in his regular postings at National Review Online, serves him well in the back-and-forth among AIS members and between them and the members of Congress who, from time to time and never with success,  threaten to close the agency down or slow its rate of growth. Geraghty tracks the growth of AIS by setting out the national debt and AIS budget numbers at the top of each chapter. There’s nowhere to go but up.

The story begins in February 1981, when Nicholas Bader, a zealous staffer of the new Reagan administration, visits the Agency with news that he plans to get it shut down. The Administrative Director, Adam Humphrey, is ready and deftly deflects Bader’s battle-ax with a story about Soviet plans to destroy American crops with the “Halogeton” weed. The novel even reproduces part of the report over several pages of text, reproducing the bad copy quality of 1981 and plain Courier font. (It’s a small disappointment that the book does not include any other mock memos, though there are several footnotes to the text to show where Geraghty is relying on real events.)

From there, it’s a tour through political Washington from the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress to 9-11, the War on Terror, and the Obama administration. In a hilarious scene recalling all the glory of the Newt Judges You Tumblr, Newt’s threat to shut down the Agency reverses course when a staffer is able to razzle-dazzle him with the promise of an Agency webpage.

In a subplot, Ava Summers, the technology systems analyst who so impressed Newt, heads out to Silicon Valley to make some quick money but blows up in a dot-bomb and finds her way back to Washington and the Weed Agency, which is still going strong.

Bader returns to the story when he is elected as a Republican Congressman from Pennsylvania, and his climactic showdown with Humphrey is appropriately portentous and ridiculous at the same time.



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