Austin Grossman’s Crooked is the best book I’ve read this year. I expected good things from Lev Grossman’s twin brother, but not much otherwise as I am not — was not — a big fan of Nixon or, indeed, of American history in general. Let’s be real, I’m an unpatriotic Europhile who prefers reading about the Tudors to the Kennedys, who will always find the Norman Conquest more interesting than the American Civil War. But by the end of the first chapter, I was breathless, thrilled, entertained and excited beyond my wildest expectations. Also, obsessed with Richard Nixon.
Crooked tells the story of Richard Milhous Nixon’s rise to power, complete with childhood in Yorba Linda, fight against the Communists as a young senator, Vice Presidency under Eisenhower, and his infamous Presidency. It’s all there: the Cold War, Vietnam, his visit to China, the moon landing, Watergate. And it’s no surprise that Watergate should be the linchpin for a novel about Nixon, but the secrets Grossman uses Watergate to cover up for are a surprise. Because Nixon isn’t the scowling jowls and flashing victory-sign you’re familiar with. Well, he is those things — but he’s not just those things. This Nixon is a sorcerer.
In Grossman’s alternate history of the mid-twentieth century, the faceless Communist threat is much more insidious than creeping ideology. Instead of restricting their arsenal to nuclear warhead, the Russians are developing supernatural weaponry. Invoking Lovecraftian forces both ancient and futuristic, they plan to infiltrate the American government with a man possessed. Senator Nixon is the unwitting victim of their first attempt and witnesses the horrific fallout. After this, the Russians have him in their pocket; he works as a mole, trying to ascertain what kinds of supernatural weapons the American government has developed.
Which, as it turns out, is quite a lot. And we get to watch Nixon as he unravels the mysterious origins of the American Presidency and the dark powers that come with it.
This by itself is all well and good. In the right hands, it might make for a book along the lines of Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Slayer, or Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Take serious history/literature, mix with a dash of chthonic forces, and bam! You’ve got yourself an entertaining novel! And how else can I describe a book that includes a horror scene set in the Pirates of the Caribbean ride in Disney World?
Only that, despite how fabulous and over-the-top (in all the best ways) the plot sounds, the writing is even better.
Not that plot is separate from writing. It’s easy to think about it as something apart, that a story just “comes to us” and then it’s our job to set it down on paper, to make it pretty, to make it sing. Well, that’s not how it works, and Grossman has carefully plotted this novel, weaving his narrative of the dark forces behind national powers seamlessly into the events of Nixon’s presidency, and using the inciting event not only to set Nixon down his path towards power and the Presidency, but also to set up the book’s greatest antagonist. The sheer believability of Crooked in reference to American history is one of its greatest strengths; it takes the familiar and makes it strange and wondrous again. For instance, as Nixon drives across the country, “past the great slumbering presence below the Grand Canyon,” he comments on the Eisenhower interstate system, calling the highways “a runic inscription right across the country,” that managed to bind “the things that lived in the in-between places, strange survivors of long-vanished primeval forests.”
But my favorite part is Nixon. His voice dominates Crooked. You thought nobody could capture your attention, your imagination, quite like Cthulhu? Wait till you meet Grossman’s Nixon, a sneaky sonofabitch with no illusions about himself and yet all the illusions of power imaginable. He’s flawed, tortured, and completely compelling, managing to be self-deprecating, self-aggrandizing, and slyly hilarious at the same time. At times, he loathes himself so much that he dreams of getting away from Richard Nixon; when he’s given false passports, he sees them as “million-dollar bills, like the Count of Monte Cristo’s treasure chest,” a way out of the sham of a life he’s created.
As the mysteries behind government pile up, he quickly gets in over his head. Despite this, Nixon craves power, pursuing it with the dogged determination of an addict. When Henry Kissinger approaches him in 1966, asking him to consider thinking about running for President again, Nixon considers what it would mean to let himself dream this long-dead dream again:
There are the rare, rare moments when you’ve lost a thing you treasured and made your peace with that loss; your life is going to go on without it, a diminished place, but you’ve figured out how to twist yourself around just right to love and appreciate the new thing you’ve become — and then you’re given another chance at the thing you wanted so badly.
But he’s funny, too, at the most poignant or frightening moments. Introducing his constant companion, Gary, the carrier of the nuclear football, he lists all of the embarrassing or private bits of his life that Gary has had to witness, including “gastrointestinal episodes,” “furious arguments with Pat,” and “restrained, dignified weeping,” before concluding, anticlimactically, that “Gary and I were not friends.” Another list, this time in a classified document, tells of “potentially nuclear-resistant entities” who might represent a threat to the United States, including “Corn Men,” “Vladimir Ilyich Lenin,” “the British royal family,” and “Little Hare, a Native American trickster god of the Southwestern United States.”
Buried beneath Nixon’s paradoxical, ridiculous exterior is a darker truth, though — the unknowability of the human heart. He admits that, since a young boy, he felt an attraction to secrets. He remembers the moment when his mother taught him what a secret was, realizing that there was “more than one side” to him:
No matter how pure I seemed, righteous all the way through, there was always another me that couldn’t be put down, a sly one, a clever one, a lying one, a vicious one. I could be elected president of the whole goddamned United States but I’d always be Tricky Dick.
All of this secret-keeping takes its toll on Nixon as an individual and on his closest relationships, primarily his relationship with his wife Pat (who has some delicious secrets of her own!). He tells us in Chapter 2:
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.
In comparison to these painful human truths, Grossman doesn’t spend much time showing us the dark forces or the secret rituals that call them forth, causing some readers to complain that they wanted more of that aspect of the book. But I thought it was perfect. One of the effects of Lovecraftian horror is the sense that the big scary thing is always just out of sight, around the corner, down a well, or lurking beneath the waves. Spending a fraction of time actually with these creatures helps amplify our terror when we do see them. But I think there’s another reason, too, that Grossman spends most of his time on Nixon’s personal fears and failings. This is his clue to his readers that the horrors of power, of being a double agent, a spy, and a fake — of, essentially, being alone — are just as chilling as the supernatural horrors the novel keeps at bay.
I got to listen to this book as narrated by Kiff VandenHeuvel. VandenHeuvel nailed Nixon’s brusque delivery without being too over-the-top; his voice was rough but resonant as if his jowls were an echo chamber but, somehow, it did not devolve into caricature. It was one of the best audiobook experiences I’ve ever had — and yet, despite getting a review copy of the audiobook for free, I STILL went out and bought this in hardback… which should tell you something, because I’m pretty cheap!