The Short Version: We all think we know the story of our thirty-seventh President, Richard Milhous Nixon – but what if Nixon wasn’t, in fact, a crook so much as the last in a line of sorcerer-presidents, standing firm against a tide of not just Communists but supernatural evil? Perhaps the world is far stranger than we’ve been allowed to believe…
The Review: “…no one has ever convincingly established a motive for the Watergate break-ins.” This quote from The Arrogance of Power: The Secret World of Richard Nixon (it’s a real book) serves as epigraph to Crooked and it feels very much like the sort of thing somebody might’ve said to Austin Grossman at a party or over dinner. It then got lodged in his brain and, as all imaginative sorts are wont to do, he let it spin up a crazy idea: what if the reason there wasn’t a ‘motive’ for Watergate because we, the people, couldn’t know about it? What if it was supernatural in nature and the story that made it into the history books has only the barest association with the truth?
Honestly, it’s a great idea. Conceptually, Grossman is echoing Gaiman here by claiming a distinctly American mythology, one that shucks off the cloak of European gods and legends and instead embraces not only the new land but a new way of doing things as well – and that sort of thing is right up my alley. But Grossman’s novel is a letdown, no two ways about it, even despite some flashes of brilliance and vivacious invention.
The biggest flaw with the book is its overcomplicated plotting and kitchen-sink mentality. It’s not enough for Grossman to introduce an occult underworld to our American polity, but also Nixon was a Soviet agent! It’s not just that the oath of office sparks supernatural abilities in Presidents, but it turns out it’s only some of them and in different ways and maybe magic is fading in America? It’s hard to blame Grossman for being overly excited about his concept, but I wish he’d settled down and thought it through a bit further. Yes, it’s thrilling when a President is mentioned and we discover some twist on what we thought we knew about them (I particularly appreciated the use of some of our lesser-known Presidents), or when we see a Washington landmark’s “true” occult significance… but I certainly didn’t understand very much of the school of magic and the context behind it. What was the deal with the Supreme Court, or was the idea of the Court-as-counter-mages just something fun to add at the end in order to further amplify the weirdness? Was it just a cute and ominous-sounding Lovecraftian phrase to say that there are four Houses of Congress (Gestalt and Hovering are the other two), or was there some amount of explanation that Grossman (or his editor) cut? I’m inclined to believe that it’s the former in these scenarios, that Grossman had a cool idea but never bothered to go behind the having.
The other big flaw with the book is that Grossman never convincingly captures one of the most distinctive voices in American history. This is not to say that you have to get it totally right – but even Seth Grahame-Smith’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter had a Lincoln who still sounded more or less like Lincoln, or at least like a Lincoln fighting vampires. Grossman’s Nixon is a blank generic supernatural fuck-up, the sort of character who could be dropped pretty much unchanged into a dozen other mid-list Lovecraftian fantasies under a different name and you would never once think that he had anything in common with Richard Nixon. The Soviet spy thing is perhaps the most egregious example; it just doesn’t make any sense, even in the context of the supernaturally augmented world of the novel. The Richard Nixon of this novel might say things like “I am not a crook” and “Sock it to ’em” but you never once believe that he’s actually that shifty, greedy, twistedly brilliant bastard who ran this country.
It occurs to me that nitpicking reality in a book whose driving impulse is that American presidents used to be sorcerers fighting against otherworldly menaces far worse than Communism or the Bomb is… silly. But silliness is perhaps exactly the problem: the reader can never take this book seriously. What a far more interesting read it would’ve been if the story was mapped directly to reality, eschewing the frankly ridiculous twists like Nixon-as-Soviet-agent and instead hewing to things that are often considered conspiracies already – like the moon landing, which is one of a handful of moments from reality that gets a terrific and spooky twist. Henry Kissinger as some kind of thousand-year-old definitely-not-quite-human/possibly-demonic entity is another inspired (and frankly entirely plausible) riff. These things that begin out of the history we know are what make for truly exciting alternate histories, because we can see where they diverge from the history we know. Grossman’s novel, on the other hand, feels at times like it grew out of a story that was spun out by an imaginative grade-school history student, whose grasp of history is not yet solid and so they invent wildly and veer sharply from any world we know, resulting in something that clearly gets marks for fun and verve but lacks any grounding in reality (ours or otherwise).
Rating: 2.5 out of 5. I’m actually giving a little more credit than my review might imply because when I had fun with this book, I sure did have *fun*. The concept is so delightfully kooky and Grossman has a flair for the smartly imagined weirdness in a way that should elevate this tale above the more patently ridiculous alt-President fare involving vampire hunting and the like. But his execution is quite plainly and dishearteningly flawed. It’s not enough to just say vaguely eldritch things and imagine that the Soviets were essentially taken over by demonic otherworldly entities, that Dick Nixon was a Soviet agent and a sorcerer who faked his death; you have to make me believe that this world could plausibly sit next to the one we live in. And Grossman, quite simply, did not. Instead, he delivered an often confusing and, even more egregiously, sometimes rather boring take on a world that he tells us is different from our own… but never quite delivers on the showing part.