By Austin Grossman
Mulholland. 355 pp. $26
Sorry, Woodward and Bernstein. You were duped, along with the rest of us. That so-called Watergate scandal was just a little play-acting to cover up the real story, a crucible of horror that would melt the face off any ordinary American.
Except, of course, for Richard Milhous Nixon.
Here, finally, our disgraced 37th president fills in those 18
“It’s been twenty years since I was forced to stage my own death,” he writes from an undisclosed location. “I’ve lived to see myself become a laughingstock, a cartoon villain, the place in the august roll call of presidents where history pauses and snickers.”
You’ll do a bit of pausing and snickering yourself while reading Austin Grossman’s outlandish new novel, “Crooked,” which proves that we still have Nixon to kick around. A cantering hodgepodge of American history, black magic and political satire, “Crooked” draws us into the whole operatic tragedy of Tricky Dick’s violently oscillating career. We follow him through his unlikely election to the House in 1946, his rabid commie-baiting, his triumphant presidency and his ignominious resignation in 1974. But those disasters you already know; now flush in crypto-biological weapons and Precambrian demons and you’ve got problems that only supernatural plumbers could solve: “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” Washington-style.
At the center of this ectoplasmic alt-history, Grossman’s Nixon is a liberal fantasy of the presidential boogeyman stewed in self-loathing, honest enough to admit to every shade of “manipulative nastiness,” but still spiteful enough to reject our pardon. And yet, in his scalding candor, he reaches toward a kind of honor as he confesses, “I never did a thing that wasn’t somehow touched with selfish, furtive hunger, with a private, annihilating need for recognition. Because I’m like a child in a fairy tale cursed from birth, and there has never been anything I can put my hand to without tainting it, no triumph so great or solemn that it doesn’t turn spoiled and ridiculous. Because, sooner or later, the darkness always gets in.”
In Grossman’s zany retelling, that darkness is downright monstrous. Early in the novel, while trailing Alger Hiss along the streets of Washington, this intrepid Nixon stumbles upon a nest of Soviet spies and gets his first glimpse down the deep throat of a phantasmal creature from the underworld. Both superpowers, he learns, are trying to control occult forces by training men to do a lot more than just stare at goats. Here is a realm of warfare far beyond the nuclear terror: “Long-range missiles with hybrid thermonuclear and necromantic payloads. Grafted and crossbred infantry divisions. Strategic alliances with folkloric, extraplanar, and subterranean entities. Field development of weaponized paleofauna. Large-scale saturation of target areas with invasive fungal and floral xeno organisms. Megadeaths and mega-undeaths.”
Grossman, who’s also a video-game designer, tempts us with the possibilities of a 20th-century “Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell,” but his dramatization of a cold war fought with “weaponized supernatural forces” is frustratingly uneven and hardly more insane than the real-life doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction. If only these revelations of dark wizardry surging through the veins of American military power were enlivened with more dazzling scenes of chthonic intrigue. For all the comic potential of this satire, “Crooked” has trouble competing with the actual Richard Nixon. (Thomas Mallon’s almost documentarian novel “Watergate” is truer, weirder and funnier.) While dropping in occult bits here and there, Grossman has somehow managed to make the Nixon administration less maniacal than it really was. But perhaps that’s to be expected; Lovecraft himself couldn’t have dug up a creature creepier than G. Gordon Liddy.
Only when it comes to Henry Kissinger does the novel really live up to its comic potential. Grossman portrays the secretary of state as “a thousand-year-old necromancer,” which may be the most plausible explanation yet for his Nobel Peace Prize. Nixon notes that his trusted adviser “was like a figure from a fairy tale, a quaint little tinker passing from town to town, peddling his magical wares.” The scene of Kissinger — Doctor Kissinger, please! — showing the president his lair under the Pentagon is a delightful tip of the sorcerer’s hat to “Dr. Strangelove.”
If “Crooked” isn’t entirely sure what kind of novel it wants to be, at least Nixon is upfront about it. Early on, he warns us: “This is a tale of espionage and betrayal and the dark secrets of a decades-long cold war. It is a story of otherworldly horror, of strange nameless forces that lie beneath the reality we know. In other words, it is the story of a marriage.”
Indeed, Pat Nixon is the truly tragic figure here. Dutiful and long-suffering, she recognizes what a “striving, gutless wonder she’d married,” but she can’t escape. “She looked,” Nixon notices, “like someone unutterably weary who had forgotten how to find her way into sleep and was trying to figure it out again.” And she holds a secret more terrifying than any occult revelation: She’s a Democrat.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.