(Disclaimer: English is my second language, so I want to apologize in advance for there may be mistakes in the text below. If you find any, please let me know so that I can correct it. I'd really appreciate it. Thanks.)
Review Soundtrack: I suggest reading this review while listening to The Love of Richard Nixon, by Manic Street Preachers (Spotify, YouTube).
Crooked, Austin Grossman's new novel, can be read in several different ways, something that it is clear from the very beginning:
This is the story of the great con game that was the late twentieth century, of American's history worst presidency, of how I learned to lie. It is not history as you know it. Suffice it to say that there are at least three sides to this story, and I'm telling both of mine. I promise you I will show the same contempt for the historical record that it has shown for me.
Of course, the book can be read just as fiction. An amazing blend of secret history, Lovecraftian pastiche, spy thriller and political autobiography. Usually, none of those genres would appeal to me, but Grossman makes them work in unison like a charm (no pun intended). Although they are all very different books, Crooked somehow reminded me of The Plot Against America, by Philip Roth, and The Yiddish Policemen's Union, by Michael Chabon, because of their mix of political intrigue with just a touch of the speculative.
The novel can also be read, however, as an allegory, a metaphor, even as a satire. Much has been said about Richard Nixon as a historical figure, most of it not very good. Taking that into account, the supernatural events of the novel, that somehow force Nixon into a certain path, may be interpreted as just another way of mocking him, another dark and macabre joke on the caricature that the protagonist has become, as he constantly reminds us:
In 1962, I was already a joke, the man who didn't know when to leave the party. Nothing like what came later, obviously. But a joke.
Nixon's obsession with political power is also reflected in the novel in his struggles to succeed in other, unexpected fields. His comical attempts at becoming a spy, for example. And, above all, his desperate pursuit to get a hold of the arcane powers of Eisenhower, Taft, Washington. A pursuit that is just shy of embarrassing for him and those who know him:
I repeated the oath of office and said the Pledge of Allegiance. Magic wasn't about dignity, I decided. I sang "The Star-Spangled Banner." I sang "God Bless America" and "My Country, 'Tis of Thee,", which has eight verses and is not an enchanting melody, but a small drink between verses improves it. The sun was low in the sky. "Yankee Doodle" has fifteen whole verses and it didn't do a damned thing.
"Dick?" It was Pat, standing in the doorway from the residence. How long had she been there?
"What are you doing?"
"I wasn't doing anything."
"You were singing."
"I was providing leadership to the free world, which is the thing I do in here every day. Which is why you should knock before coming in."
"I did knock. Someone - apparently not you- was singing 'Yankee Doodle' too loudly to hear me. Have you been drinking? I'm also wondering why you're wearing that flag as a cape." That I had put on around the tenth verse, a matter of thoroughness.
"Everything about this situation is classified."
Finally, Crooked can also be read as a paranoid delusion, a bizarrely elaborate excuse or a perfect example of an unreliable narration. We should not forget that the novel is, in fact, Nixon's fictional autobiography in which he explains the "true" events that made him behave like he did, and that it depicts him not as a failure, but quite to the contrary, as a hero, a savior, a martyr. But, why should we believe him when even he recognizes he is a liar?
I sweated and sometimes all I could hear was my own inner voice saying, Liar, liar, liar, as I wondered if the next thing to come out of my mouth would sound crazy or not.
In any case, in whichever way you want to read Crooked, what is undeniably true is that it is an excellent novel in almost every respect. The plot is intriguing from the very first page and the tension only builds up with each new development. I just love the way the real historical events blend seamlessly with the fantasy elements and I was really impressed with how Grossman uses the ellipsis: many times, what is left unsaid is as important as what is actually told. The characters are just amazing, completely fully fleshed and three-dimensional. The voice of Nixon is just perfect, but the secondary characters are equally memorable: Eisenhower, Kissinger, Pat Nixon... and, especially, the Russian spies: Gregor, Arkady and Tatiana. And, to top it all, the novel is full of a wonderful sense of humor:
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.
I've enjoyed every bit of Crooked and I can't recommend it highly enough. It made me think, it made me laugh, it made my eyes go wide and my jaw fall with surprise. This is one of the books of the year. Do not miss it.