Commercial fiction is, above all, plot driven, so it’s ironic that the great pleasure of a secret history is knowing the ultimate conclusion of the story. In this case, the reader’s interest is truly the journey, not the destination. The genre is seen most commonly in fantasy stories, where the occult serves as propulsive force behind known historical events, in place of the more quotidian factors of culture, economics, sociology, and power politics. Crooked by Austin Grossman takes the reader inside the career of a corrosively transformational historical figure: Richard Milhous Nixon, and reimagines his rise and fall as a byproduct of a Cold War-era magic battle between semi-good (the United States) and clear evil (the Soviet Union).
The story is told in retrospect, in Nixon’s voice, beginning with the Alger Hiss case and ending with Watergate. It’s during the Hiss investigation that Nixon has his first inkling that the conflict between capitalism and communism may have supernatural dimensions. Breaking into Hiss’ home, Nixon discovers papers that reference strange goings-on at a government facility, which have so shaken Hiss that the "socialist future" ceases to concern him. Nixon, in the mold of skeptical Lovecraftian heroes since time immemorial, ignores the warning signs, and does not bother to interpret the documents. The only thing that registers is, "Alger Hiss was a damn communist." The reader however, gets a classic foreshadowing of uncanny hijinks to come.
Other historical events come and go, and Nixon is gradually drawn deeper into the conspiracy. Major Cold War figures turn out to have unusual powers. Through it all, Grossman’s fictionalized Nixon remains a mostly pitiable bystander. His political power waxes, while his understanding of the true power that animates his world advances very little, leaving him vulnerable to those who do understand. At one point, Eisenhower shows his contempt for his vice president by blasting him out of the Oval Office. As in real life, Crooked’s main character is a perpetual underdog, and because his pedigree and merit are hugely disproportionate to his appetites, is made to suffer over and over.
This careful development of character is the best part of Crooked. Nixon is a true antihero, a word that has seen some overuse with the rise of serialized television. He’s not an admirable person, a handsome rogue, who does difficult things to advance his way. He’s a despicable hack and he knows it. Through it all, the author manages to produce a sympathetic figure, whose trials carry emotional weight. The frankness of the mental voice, rendered in understated language, sways the reader into caring.
Grossman errs in the inclusion of a poorly chosen subplot about Nixon and two Soviet agents, and the streamlined, even sparse narrative is a weakness in this thoroughly enjoyable novel. So much remains unexplained that the ending cannot help but disappoint a little. In Crooked, a mildly befuddled Nixon is endearing—the same sentiment in the reader strikes the occasional sour note.
Published under: Book reviews