'Watergate': Thomas Mallon's novel of Nixon's downfall
Thomas Mallon's novel "Watergate" tells the story of the biggest presidential scandal in U.S. history through multiple story strands, creating a perverse and darkly comedic thriller.
Special to The Seattle Times
by Thomas Mallon
Random House, 432 pp., $26.95
The fog of names from 40 years ago, in Thomas Mallon's new novel "Watergate," is disorienting at first.
But gradually a picture comes into focus — or, actually, multiple pictures. And those multiple story strands eventually form a snaring net that will bring down Richard Nixon in the biggest presidential scandal in U.S. history.
Mallon's cast of characters is vast, and the narrative maneuvers he uses to shoehorn them all into the picture feel a bit forced in the first 50 pages of the book. But once he's got his protagonists identified and in place, "Watergate" becomes a pleasurably perverse and darkly comedic thriller.
The perversity comes from Mallon staying so tightly confined to the Nixon administration's point of view. Not a sliver of outside perspective gets in. Democrats, judiciary officials, inquiring journalists and anti-Nixon protesters are reduced to the size of gnats — and the puzzle for Nixon insiders is to figure out why swatting at them won't make them go away.
As for the thriller component, it has less to do with any actual action than with the unraveling of political delusions, step by step, until Nixon realizes that hanging onto power simply isn't tenable.
Among the key characters the novel tracks are:
• Fred LaRue, one of the operatives in the 1972 burglary of the Democratic National Committee office in Washington, D.C.'s, Watergate complex, and a would-be fixer of the mess.
• Alice Roosevelt Longworth, daughter of Teddy Roosevelt and a longtime Washington insider, best known for her classic line: "If you can't say something good about someone, sit right here by me."
• Rose Mary Woods, Nixon's secretary, portrayed here as a brittle, driven devotee to the president. Her role in the 18 minutes missing from the Oval Office tapes is given a barbed emotional twist by Mallon.
• E. Howard Hunt and his wife, Dorothy, who served as distributors of illicit funds from Nixon & Co. to cover the living expenses and legal fees of the Watergate conspirators.
• John Mitchell and his gloriously blowzy alcoholic of a wife, Martha, who gets in some of the best lines in the book.
Nixon himself and the long-suffering Pat, abiding by her own conflicted stand-by-your-man code of honor as events unfold, naturally have their moments in the narrative limelight too.
Mallon imagines backroom prejudices and resentments so thoroughly out of touch with the country's mood that they're almost persuasive. Could the Nixon administration be standing on the high ground in some weird way? And if so, wouldn't that justify breaking a few laws here and there?
There's a farcical element to the way the conspirators anxiously avoid learning more about their own conspiracy from one another in order not to place themselves in further legal jeopardy. The novel is also alert to the way that Nixon's genuine diplomatic efforts in China and the Middle East served as his own best rationale for staying in office.
More than in his other historical novels (including "Fellow Travelers" and the sublime "Two Moons," set, respectively, in 1950s and 1870s Washington, D.C.), Mallon's method here is to count on readers remembering details from an era some of them may have lived through. But will anyone under 50 pick up on the references to "Kay" (Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham), "Lieutenant Calley" (the central figure in the My Lai Massacre) or the score of minor Watergate players swirling through the action?
Fortunately there's a 4-page cast-list (112 entries!) to help keep readers on-track.
Mallon also weaves his own fantastical what-ifs around the historical record. The liberties he takes may not sit well with sticklers for the facts, but they lend the novel a beguilingly intricate structure. And the thrust of the book — to probe at the character of the president — is never in doubt.
Martha Mitchell, as channeled by Mallon, says it best: "We are dealin' with a most irregular Joe here."
Michael Upchurch is a
Seattle Times arts writer.