The chronicle of Richard Nixon's fall from power fits neatly into an engaging, bittersweet first novel about a boy eager to throw himself over the brink into adolescence, his Watergate-inspired spy capers revealing family secrets he'd rather not know. As an 11-year-old living in San Francisco in 1972, Jack Costello has ample opportunity to witness the polarity of American life. The neighbors on his middle-class street are hippies who throw their TV out in the street when Nixon is reelected and deface his father's sports car with its proud little pro-Nixon bumper sticker. But the word ""Watergate"" is already in the air, and as Jack wonders what gives at his house--his frustrated-pianist father and frustrated-artist mother barely speak to each other, his teenage sister Macie has the mind of a five-year-old, and at breakfast the family's randy monkey regularly humps one of their dogs--the unraveling of the Nixon era begins. During the ensuing two years, Jack discovers pot, Playboy pinups, and an ad for a listening device that he sends for and begins to use when his parents are on the phone. Transfixed by the Watergate hearings without knowing why, alienated from his friends for his own display of randiness, and befuddled by the knowledge that his father is having an affair, Jack just can't deal with it all. Then, when further snooping shows him to be responsible for the long-ago accident that left Macie impaired, he all but shuts down; only an unexpectedly heroic act by his father brings a semblance of order to his life, allowing him to go on. The bravado and tentativeness of a child playing beyond his depth in an adult world ring out in exquisite combination here, while the political chords, perfectly pitched, color his transformation without swamping it. A most impressive debut.