Watergate as Fiction
If today's rancorous politics have left you begging for comic relief, why not drift back to those memorable times when things got really out of whack: the Nixon years. In his new novel, Watergate, Thomas Mallon demonstrates that the events of the early 1970s, when the bugging of the Democratic National Headquarters resulted in the biggest political scandal in our nation's history, are far enough behind us to laugh a little.
Mallon, who fictionalizes the story by probing the personal dynamics of Nixon's elite inner circle, is an old hand at examining historical events from distinctive viewpoints. His earlier novel Henry and Clara centered on the unlucky young couple who shared Lincoln's theater box on the night the president was assassinated. A later book, Dewey Defeats Truman, explored life in Owosso, Mich., the hometown of near-miss presidential candidate Thomas E. Dewey, in 1948. Perhaps it was inevitable that Mallon would get around to addressing Watergate, since his small brick home in the Washington, D.C., neighborhood of Foggy Bottom is across the street from the notorious Watergate Hotel.
"People have said that I seem to have affection for all my characters," Mallon mused in an interview with Paul Morton of Bookslut.com, well before writing Watergate. He added that, except for John Wilkes Booth, his works had never dealt with a truly evil subject.
The critical buzz about Watergate acknowledges the author's wry even-handedness. The novel "entices us back to those frenzied pre-Internet days of the Dictabelt, the smoking gun, the hush money, the Saturday Night Massacre, the Enemies List, Deep Throat, CREEP and 'expletive deleted' -- the whole labyrinthine episode," says Ron Charles in The Washington Post. In the Los Angeles Times, Scott Martelle observes that all the president's men "come alive here, and somewhat sympathetically. For those of us who were around during those riveting days, the scenarios carry the ring of truth."
Watergate isn't the only historical novel getting attention lately. Here are three others worth checking out:
1. Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James. Great Britain's grand dame of the crime novel, who's still cranking out fiction at 91, offers a not-so-happily-ever-after sequel to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. The date is 1803, six years after the wedding of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy, and a murder shatters their tranquility. Although many authors have attempted to expand on the Austen portfolio, James has the qualifications, and her writing style is "more than convincing," says The New York Times' Patricia Wall. The novel's main weakness, according to Wall, is no fault of the author's: The lack of forensic sophistication in the early 1800s means that the crime almost must solve itself. USA Today's' Carol Memmott ignores that quibble, proclaiming the sequel "perfect" and adding, "It's as if James is channeling Austen, perfectly emulating her in language, rhythm and tone." Tom Nolan of The Wall Street Journal calls the book "a literary work several levels above the usual derivative jeu d'esprit. Ms. James has done an impressive job in combining her crime-novelist technique with Jane Austen's sweetly acidic sensibility."
2. Changó's Beads and Two-Tone Shoes by William Kennedy. The eighth novel in Kennedy's epic series centered on Albany, N.Y., explores conflict and redemption in a story that dwells for a while on events at a Havana nightclub in 1957. Later, the story jumps forward to Albany on the day in 1968 that Robert F. Kennedy (no relation to the author) is assassinated. Noting that the author won a Pulitzer Prize for book No. 3 in the series, Ironweed, Colette Bancroft of the Tampa Bay Times labels this latest installment "a virtuoso improvisation upon music and memory, revolution and race and romance, terrible loss and enduring love." Bob Minzesheimer of USA Today calls it "an ambitious, mature work. But it's best read for its jazzy writing rather than its crowded plot, which at times becomes hard to follow."
3.The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt. "If Cormac McCarthy had a sense of humor, he might have concocted a story like Patrick DeWitt's bloody, darkly funny western," says Carolyn Kellogg of the Los Angeles Times. The year is 1851, and two hired killers, Eli and Charlie Sisters, are traveling from Oregon to California to carry out a hit. Eli narrates, and his voice -- "shot through with dark humor" -- makes the tale a treat, Kellogg writes. "There is something very human in all this blood and guts, in their grim and gross and comic physicality." This humanness gives the novel warmth and depth," she says. The New York Times' John Vernon is not as smitten, saying the "deadpan dialogue occasionally suffers from slippage, and its portentous declarations can sound, well, portentous." In The Washington Post, Ron Charles labels the story "weirdly funny, startlingly violent and steeped in sadness." The surprise ending, Charles adds, is "just miraculously lovely."
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