by Alex Kava
Published by MIRA Books
2007, 432 pages
In Full Color
Reviewed by Anthony Rainone
With rising gasoline prices in the United States and the volatile political situation in the Middle East, attention to developing and using alternative fuels is increasing significantly. It’s hard not to see an ethanol plant if you drive through America’s Midwest, for example, and Nebraska author Alex Kava has tapped into this topical theme in her newest standalone thriller, Whitewash. Set in the dual locations of Florida and Washington, D.C., Kava’s novel features an alternating cast of characters culled from the worlds of science, politics and international intelligence. If you never thought the environment could be riveting, you’re quite mistaken. Whitewash is white hot.
The scientific lynchpin of this story is the thermal conversion process (TCP), which “converts refuse and other waste material” into oil. Although Kava offers a fictionalized depiction of this procedure in Whitewash, she duly notes that TCP does exist and “is an exciting and viable energy alternative.” In the novel, Dr. Dwight Lansik is the head scientist for EcoEnergy, an alternative-fuel production facility nestled near the Apalachicola Forest, in Tallahassee, Florida. Lansik devises a formula using feedstock -- in this case, chicken guts, heads and lungs -- that is heated at extremely high temperatures. The liquid gook used for fuel is separated from the waste byproduct, which is a non-pollutant (though the process does produce a nauseating stench). The nontoxic waste is then cooled by water and dumped into the Apalachicola River. Although EcoEnergy relies on subsidies from the federal government, and its production output cannot compare yet to fossil fuels, it holds a great deal of promise.
But in these pages, TCP also generates paranoia and hatred, and inevitably leads to murder.
There are several individuals who hope to take advantage of EcoEnergy’s breakthrough feedstock process. One of those is Senator John Quincy Allen, from the great state of Florida. Allen has been escorting EcoEnergy through the Byzantine channels of Washington, D.C., politics, and giving it special attention in the Senate Appropriations Committee. He hopes not only to earn recognition as a frontrunner on environmental issues, but also to secure a $140 million contract to supply the U.S. military with fuel. If successful, Allen can write his own political future. Allen has a close working relationship with the CEO of EcoEnergy, William Sidel, who is widely recognized as a brilliant and upcoming star in his own right. Both men tolerate their mutual self-interest in the cause of ensuring EcoEnergy’s success. But, proving once again that the convergence of business and politics can produce an ugly two-headed monster, there are early indications in this tale that Sidel has something sinister on the senator.
Jason Brill is Allen’s hardworking and underappreciated chief of staff. He’s conscientious and dedicated, though his boss often fails to appreciate the efforts Brill goes through to make Allen look good (“The senator had shot Jason one of those subtle, furrowed-brow looks of disapproval that Jason knew so well”). Brill is also demonstrably smart and level-headed -- at least until he engages in a one-night stand with Lindsay Matthews, the chief of staff for Allen’s senatorial adversary, Shirley Malone of Indiana. During his roll in the hay with Matthews at D.C.’s Washington Grand Hotel, a gay senatorial aide, Zach Kensor, is brutally murdered in the same hotel. Brill soon finds himself a suspect in the eyes of investigating detectives, after police discover that the two men knew each other. It doesn’t help, either, that the lovely Ms. Matthews fails to alibi Brill for the night (“‘You left early, before I woke up,’ she finally said”). Also complicating matters for the normally ball-busting Brill: he finds himself attracted to Senator Malone, “[y]et his attraction to her unnerved him.” The threat to Brill’s reputation and innocence comes to a dramatic head by this novel’s end, at an energy summit hosted by Allen in Florida. Brill is a survivor, and though he makes his living in the murky corridors of congressional wheeling and dealing, he has a streak of truthfulness that can only be counted as a redeeming quality.
While all of this is going on, workaholic Dr. Lansik goes missing, and Dr. Sabrina Galloway, a staff scientist at EcoEnergy, becomes suspicious -- especially since Lansik’s car is still in the parking lot. Galloway has her own set of problems. She has relocated to Florida from her previous home in Chicago, taking a sabbatical from her teaching position there and leaving close friends behind. She’s in Florida not only because her remuneration at EcoEnergy makes her teaching salary look like a mere pittance, and the work is exciting, but more importantly because her father, Arthur Galloway, a formerly respected inventor, is housed in a mental facility in Chattahoochee, Florida. Arthur Galloway suffered his mental breakdown shortly after his artist wife died in a car accident. It was a difficult decision for Sabrina Galloway to uproot herself from the Midwest to the Sunshine State (“She had lived in Chicago all her life. In thirty-five years her biggest move was from downtown to the suburbs”), and it cost her the loss of her fiancé.
There are other disturbing happenings at EcoEnergy, as well. In particular, Galloway notices that Reactor #5 is processing Grade 2 materials -- plastics and metals. The reactor is supposed to be dormant, and EcoEnergy is not yet set up to safely process those materials, or clean their waste products (“We have a long way a long way to go before we can use Reactor #5. That’s probably another forty million dollars away”). Galloway’s powers of observation are not welcome. When someone runs her off the road one night, as she returns home from seeing her father, she nearly dies in the ensuing crash and explosion. Later, when a fellow scientist is mistaken for Galloway and brutally murdered, Galloway doesn’t need further provocation. She packs up and flees Tallahassee for a safer Florida location.
Whitewash is told in third-person from multiple viewpoints, and the frequent toggling back and forth takes a little getting used to. However, the changing perspective ultimately becomes comfortable, and the converging plot lines add to the mounting tension. One of those points of view belongs to Leon, an out-of-town hit man who’s been hired to eliminate anybody who would endanger the welfare of EcoEnergy (“His job was simple -- stop the trouble”). Leon is in Tallahassee only because a previous, unrelated hit went wrong. After he commits his first EcoEnergy-related murder, Leon is asked to stick around and make another kill -- this time of the all-too-curious Sabrina Galloway. For a hit man, Leon reveals a vulnerability that makes him both human and comical. He is decidedly not Sopranos material, though his results are deadly (“Leon swung the pipe from right to left, smashing it into the ... skull ... he heard a distinctive crack”). The weather and the circumstances make Leon sweat profusely, he has indigestion and fate seems not to favor him (“What a fucking streak of bad luck he was having”). He’s not a stupid man, however, and he has invested his money wisely. His diabolical employer eventually learns that Leon’s allegiance is only as solid as his self-interest.
EcoEnergy might be Senator Allen’s great political hope, and Sidel’s brilliant business acquisition, but it is also a terrorist piñata. In another plot thread, the reader is introduced to Abda Hassar, a Middle Eastern terrorist posing as a D.C. cab driver. Hassar is bent on making a deadly political statement at an upcoming energy summit in Tallahassee hosted by Senator Allen, primarily to showcase EcoEnergy. Hassar’s mission has a particular twist: he wants to keep America invested in the Middle East.
In this final charged subplot scenario -- one that could have filled another whole book -- Natalie Richards, a White House aide, and Colin Jernigan, an intelligence operative of unidentified origin, must somehow stop Hassar and his cohorts. Unfortunately for Hassar, his co-conspirators are more devious in their intentions that he realizes.
Running out to more than 400 pages in length, Whitewash easily fills the space with ample entertainment. There’s a lot going on here. Besides the story lines already mentioned, the author explores a subplot involving Sabrina Galloway’s estranged brother, Eric; a safe haven for outlaws run by a drug smuggler in Pensacola, Florida; and an elderly neighbor of Galloway’s, whose wily ways belie her advanced years. Readers who take this novel to the beach this summer will never make it into the water. Whitewash is a rock-solid, imaginative thriller. | June 2007