THE PUBLIC BURNING by Robert Coover
Kirkus Star

THE PUBLIC BURNING

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Neither the pre-publication publicity nor Coover's exuberant word-riffs can conceal the tiny-mindedness behind this rewrite of early-1950s American history as comic-book mytho-fantasy. The "public burning" is the Ethel & Julius Rosenberg electrocution, here transformed into the Times Square vaudeville-rally that everyone--dodo Ike, "Boy Judge" Kaufman, prosecutor Saypol, and folksy, ballsy "Superhero" Uncle Sam himself--is bloodthirstily, Yahoo-istically waiting for. Justice Douglas' stay-of-execution creates a delay: time for the pinko servants of Sam's arch-enemy ("the Phantom!") to march and picket. And time for pathetic, paranoid Veep R. Nixon, who narrates every other chapter, to rehash the case; to detect parallels between the Rosenberg and Nixon family histories; to realize that "Eth" and "Julie" are "taking the rap for somebody else"; and to lose himself in masturbatory fantasies of earthy Ethel. As the execution-day gala commences--public spanking of Douglas, skits based on the Rosenberg Death House Letters by Astaire & Rogers, Jack Benny, the Marx Brothers--Nixon rushes to Sing-Sing for an erotic encounter with Ethel ("Richard, I could eat you in sheer extremity of feeling!"), tries to divert the the death-hungry Times Sq. horde ("everbody "drop his pants for America!"), precipitates an apocalyptic mob scene, and--after the electrocutions take place as scheduled--is initiated into America's power elite via sodomy by Uncle Sam: a "rendyvoos with destiny ain't no beanbag!" As a novella (the author's original intent), this ingenious scenario would flare, stun, and leave its mark. But Coover's inflationary technique--reduce to a one-liner and then free-associate, allude, and expand like crazy--belabors and betrays the essential gimcrack design. The tone of righteous sarcasm becomes a drone. Chunks of the public record are jazzily ornamented and tossed in. Juicy zingers about TIME and the N.Y. Times are whipped into the consistency of poured concrete. With no human moorings (for all the psycho-portraiture, RMN never graduates from gimmick to character), Coover skids between easy-target satire (Bruce, Sahl, et al. were there first) and melodramatic grandstanding, with no new insights worthy of his remarkable rhetorical talents. A provocative kernel lost in a dazzling, deadening morass: precisely the kind of book more likely to be talked about than read.


Pub Date: Aug. 26th, 1977
ISBN: 0802135277
Page count: 564pp
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1st, 1977




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