'Crooked' Nixon Knew: There Are Worse Things Than Nukes

'Crooked' Nixon Knew: There Are Worse Things Than Nukes

7:03am Jul 28, 2015
Promo photo from multimedia
Lydia Thompson / NPR

Everything from the blockbuster National Treasure to the TV series Sleepy Hollow has trafficked in the idea that America might not be exactly what it appears. Similarly, Austin Grossman's new novel, Crooked, imagines a United States founded not only on democracy and independence, but on the murky foundation of dark magic. But rather than handling this premise with a light, pulpy touch, Grossman's vision of the secret history of Richard M. Nixon is as eerie and absorbing as it is fantastically ludicrous.

In Crooked's alternate history — told from the point of view of Nixon himself — the U.S. finds itself in a dilemma after the end of World War II, one that few in the country actually know about. In addition to the perceived threat from the Soviet Union, there's an arms race that's amassing forces far more sinister than even the A-bomb. "What if there are worse things in the world than nuclear weapons?" President Eisenhower asks his young Vice President Nixon, just as the latter is beginning to learn the secrets that lurk beneath the Oval Office — as well as the thin veneer of reality.

Grossman's done his research, and the legwork shows. His details of Nixon's imaginary life — as well as those of his wife, Pat, and other contemporaries such as John F. Kennedy, Henry Kissinger and Ronald Reagan — are threaded into actual history with an intricate, clever and startling plausibility. Not that Crooked is trying to offer itself up as some kind of Alex Jones-esque conspiracy theory; even when the book tackles the whole notion of a possible faked moon landing in 1969, Grossman out-nuts the nut-jobs with a premise that's as outlandish as it is superbly conceived.

Crooked wouldn't fly, though, without a strong Nixonian voice. Grossman mostly succeeds at imbuing his first-person narrative with a beautifully tangled mix of ambition, bitterness, isolation and self-mockery, leavened with a noble sense of self-sacrifice. It takes a sure hand to turn one of the presidency's most reviled officeholders into a sympathetic character without glossing over any of his well-documented flaws; even when Grossman serves up an occasional glaring inconsistency in Nixon's voice, it only adds to the complexity of his semifictionalized character. As Grossman's Nixon notes after his surprising early success as a congressional candidate in the late '40s, he was as much a product of his time as a damaged symbol of it: "It was, it turned out, exactly the kind of climate that a shrewd, pushy, ignorant person such as myself could turn to his advantage."

The plot of Crooked rolls out erratically, jumping from year to year throughout the decades, highlighting key points in history as they intersect with Nixon — and with his growing knowledge of the supernatural danger that threatens the world as we know it. Here, Grossman draws heavily from the cosmic horror of H.P. Lovecraft, as adroitly as he draws from real-life history. And while a lengthy subplot involving Soviet agents starts to feel leaden about halfway through the story, that drag is overcome by Nixon's endlessly compelling reinvention of himself as a man poised halfway between the past and the future, the world we know and the world beyond.

History has begun to be somewhat kinder to Nixon as the decades go by, but Grossman goes one step further by reveling in the dissonance between the Nixon we know and the Nixon who could've been (assuming, of course, that magic and monsters are real). Crooked isn't simply a work of simple satire or wonky alt-history; it's a speculative character study that taps into truths about Nixon that may be more essential than literal. That is, when they're not deliciously absurd. The book is also a study of America as a whole, and the evils both real and imagined that went into its formation. And it reminds us, in its own tragicomic way, not only that history is written by the victors — but that the losers aren't always who we think they are.

Jason Heller is a senior writer at The A.V. Club, a Hugo Award-winning editor and author of the novel Taft 2012.

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