It’s rare that I read a book that makes me resentful. A good SFF novel usually inspires in me a sense of well-being, a gladness that I took the time to read Neptune’s Brood or Three Parts Dead (both very good novels, for what it’s worth). Sometimes I’m jealous of the author’s skill, their deft plotting and expert pacing. It’s more rare that the very premise of a book makes me angry at its author for having a brilliant idea that a childish part of me believes should have been mine, but I hadn’t yet gotten around to having it. And so: Crooked, by Austin Grossman. Crooked just came out in hardcover last week (and Kindle ebook, which is how I read it); I bought it as soon it dropped and read it over the course of three days.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one (you haven’t): the autobiography of Richard Milhous Nixon, thirty-seventh president of the United States of America, last of the mage-presidents, tracing his rise from Soviet mole to his near-miss as a human sacrifice to Yog-Sothoth to his first meeting with a revenant to his terrifying encounters with Eisenhower, who spat lightning and deflected bullets, to his terror at the prospect of a Sorcerous Eldritch Entities Gap with the Soviets, to his magical debate-duel with Kennedy, to his alliance with a thousand-year-old Bavarian sorcerer calling itself Henry Kissinger, all the way to, at long last, the night of the Watergate break-in:
It was time for me to do my part. I closed the blinds, knelt down, and rolled back the carpeting to reveal the greater seal of the office, set just beneath the public one. I rolled up my left sleeve and cut twice with the dagger as prescribed, to release the blood of the Democratically Elected, the Duly Sworn and Consecrated. I began to chant in stilted, precise seventeenth-century English prose from the Twelfth and Thirteenth Secret Articles of the United States Constitution. These were not the duties of the U.S. presidency as I had once conceived of them, nor as most of the citizens of this country still do. But really. Ask yourself if everything in your life is the way they told you it would be.
This is the Nixon of John Hodgman’s Areas of My Expertise, of Tim Power’s Declare. From his unlikely election to Congress in 1948 to his final moments on the national stage with Mark Frost, Crooked moves mostly at a breakneck pace. Occasionally this worked against my enjoyment: a few events I’d expected to be key plot points were glossed over or skipped entirely, like Richard Nixon’s address to the national convention American Bottlers of Carbonated Beverages that by sheer chance took place in Dallas the night before 22 November 1963. Similarly, there are a handful of factual inaccuracies, most but not all of which are probably deliberate decisions for tone. Helen Gahagan Douglas was Nixon’s Democratic opponent in the 1950 Senate race, but she wasn’t a sitting incumbent, for example. And unless I misremember, which is always possible, the Lincoln Bedroom has not been sealed since 1922, when, after dozens of disappearances, an explorer entered the room “armed with camping gear, two pistols, and a month’s worth of provisions,” only to vanish without a trace beyond the occasional barely-audible scream for help.
In addition to being a brilliantly inventive combination of two of my favorite things — Lovecraftian horror and 20th Century realpolitik — Crooked is also hilarious in its use of dramatic irony. Horrible, horrible things happen to the main character, and you feel bad for him, and then you remember that he’s Nixon, so it’s okay. Grossman’s Nixon is speaking backwards from a present twenty years after he faked his death. He’s acutely aware of his role in the culture: he’s Tricky Dick, the cartoonish super-villain of Futurama, the uncharismatic antihero of biopics, the easy punchline of old standup sets and Doonesbury comics. For reasons that ultimately become clear, he chose that role as better than the offered alternative. But there’s a kernel of truth to it: he is, at heart, Dick Nixon, a man powered almost entirely by greed, envy, and spite. His first thought, whenever a problem presents itself, is to think who he can blame, where’s the bus he can throw his patsy under so he can get away clean, what lie does he need to spin to escape the fate he deserves?