By Thomas Mallon
Historical literary fiction
How one perceives Thomas Mallon's latest work of historical fiction could well depend not so much on the merits of the work itself, but what one brings to it. Much of this novel may not make sense if one didn't live through 1972-73, when a third-rate burglary either took down a presidency or revealed a cancer on the honor of the nation.
For those of us who were amazed at the events and people of those times as they unfolded, Watergate (and Vietnam) remain definitive. For anyone to take on the whole scope of Watergate -- the burglars, the politicians, CRP (or CREEP, or Committe to Re-Elect the President), Woodward and Bernstein, Mrs. Nixon and the girls, and, at the dark center of it all, Richard Milhous Nixon, the drinking and cussing Quaker who carpet bombed Vietnam during peace talks -- how could all that fit into one novel? And be readable?
Mallon has found a way to make it work by focusing on several characters. But they are not all the usual ones. There is as much from the viewpoint of Alice Roosevelt Longworth as there is from both Nixons. Unexpectedly, the central character to the whole story, the one who can put all the pieces together, is Fred LaRue. Mallon says LaRue's life is the one most tampered with. The results are the stuff of which conjecture is used to make sense of events.
The same can be said for Rose Mary Woods and the infamous erasure of 18 1/2 minutes of Oval Office tapes. Mallon comes up with a way that it could have happened that fits perfectly with one way to look at Woods's character and also plays into the way so many people were ready to believe the worst of Nixon and his inner circle. This storyline also makes Woods a woman of her time, so there is trope of women's liberation and how some women who didn't believe in it limited themselves. Pat Nixon is treated with dignity and has an even sadder storyline than the tragedy of being married to Nixon.
The acts of both LaRue and Woods, and reactions to their acts, are used by Mallon to create not a tragedy, but a farce. This is how a presidency self-destructs? Are you kidding? Well, no. And that's why using Alice Roosevelt as a character also makes great sense. This woman of one liners who says late in the novel that someone should have seen that the great promise she had was wasted demonstrates both sides of the coin for both Nixon and his presidency. There is tawdry pettiness and there is the dark desire to not be overshadowed hanging over the characters of this novel and the real Watergate scandal as clearly as any storm cloud that blocks the sun.
Both Woods and LaRue are moved late in the book to read about themselves in books written by others in the scandal's aftermath. Both are crushed by what they read. Both see injustice done to them.
If the novel was adapted into a movie, it would have to pay homage to the TV program Mad Men. That's because the novel is practically an homage to the end of that era, and not just because of all the hard liquor and distaste expressed by so many characters about how the times are changing. The female characters are remarkable portraits of intelligent, ambitious and loving people trapped by their societal roles. Those who try to break the mold are either punished or, at the least, don't win.
This is where the farce Mallon has constructed shows its sturdy underpinnings in tragedy. What if Pat Nixon had had a chance to be happy? What if Rose Mary Woods had not been put down by an ad executive? What if Alice Roosevelt Longworth had forged a life with the man she really loved? How fulfilling would their lives have been? How might history have been different? And how might the men in their lives have messed it all up any way? That's only one way to look at not only Mallon's novel, but also the real people portrayed in it.
And that, regardless of where one stands on Watergate and its aftermath, makes this a novel worth reading, its characters worth caring about and its events worth pondering.
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