So you’ve dreamed up a sweeping thriller based largely on historical fact that starts off as a brittle spy novel set in the most agitated years of the Cold War but also happens to throw in some unimaginable Lovecraftian horrors. Now the question is: who should be the hero in this nightmarish alternative history of the United States?
Of course it’s Richard Nixon.
And so emerges what has to be one of the weirdest novelistic entries in what was already a really weird summer with Crooked by Austin Grossman. I greatly enjoyed Grossman’s debut novel Now I Will Be Invincible (2007) and recently devoured his semi-autobiographical follow-up You (2013) about the videogame industry. But even I was taken aback by the author’s decision not only to place the most notorious president in U.S. history at the heart of his new novel but also to make him the narrator. Naturally my first question for Grossman is how he managed to get into the headspace of one of history’s genuine villains.
“It’s a tricky place to be,” Grossman says. “Once you turn the spotlight on him and say, ‘Just explain it to me. Tell me what the hell happened, Dick,’ the floodgates open. Once you start to let him talk, he just talks forever trying to explain what was going on. I got the voice just by asking him to explain what happened and he wouldn’t stop trying to justify himself and get his version of the truth on record.”
As it unfolds, the story in Crooked starts to make strange sense of the embattled president’s life. There are a lot of iconic moments in Nixon’s life, like giving Elvis Presley a narco badge or praying on the floor with Henry Kissinger. Then there’s the the night he stumbled down to the Lincoln Memorial to confront some student protestors. Some of these moments make it into Crooked and some don’t but there’s no denying the bizarre nature of the man’s life, made even stranger when he’s portrayed as a man holding back the forces of darkness.
“Nixon is a logical protagonist for this sort of conflict once you start working with him,” Grossman explains. “He’s an anti-communist crusader. He’s a wannabe tough guy, both in real life and in this novel. Once you pull on this thread of the supernatural reality that I’ve put him in, you can’t stop being fascinated by it. On the surface, his behavior makes no sense. So the idea that he was juggling his life, his marriage, his children, the presidency, and supernatural forces on top of it all, it makes a much more sensible portrait than the one we have in reality. Nixon is also one of those characters who make everything funnier. You can drop him into nearly any situation and it becomes funnier and stranger just because he’s there.”
Although the book carries its own macabre sense of humor well, Grossman also did the heavy lifting to figure out how the real events of Nixon’s life might gel with the paranormal activities the author has inserted into his fictional autobiography.
“I grew up with the H.P. Lovecraft part of Crooked but having to learn Nixon’s life story really was a huge part of the process,” he says. “I’ve never had to do research for a novel before. The first novel was about superheroes and I knew my way around that world and the second novel was about videogames and kind of diverged into memoir. Nixon’s life was something I had to learn cold and it’s going to be terrifying once the book is out there because I know that people who actually know history really well are going to catch me out in a million different ways. But I certainly did my best on the homework.”
Two of the characters that Grossman nails perfectly in Crooked are the statesman Henry Kissinger, presented here as a very menacing figure indeed, and Pat Nixon, the president’s long-suffering wife. Their portrayals here remind me of a story Senator George McGovern once told me about a black tie dinner at the White House. At the event, Henry Kissinger told the First Lady, “Mrs. Nixon, it’s been the blessing of my life that I was permitted to work for your husband. He’s going to go down in history as one of our greatest presidents and I just wanted to tell you as the person closest to him how highly I regard him,” to which a slightly tipsy Pat Nixon replied, “Henry, shouldn’t you know better by now?”
While Crooked certainly doesn’t lend the late president any sympathy, it seems that Grossman has developed a grudging respect for his fictional protagonist, even if he still hasn’t quite gotten his head around the man at the end of the day.
“Well, Nixon is a mystery, right?” says the author. “What sort of person is at the heart of that story? It’s one of those unknowable things, which was what motivated me to write a book about it. Here you can see a version of Nixon who is this introvert who is trapped in the spotlight and sort of trapped between all these forces in his life. But it’s still a made-up Nixon. If you go to the historical record, you obviously have a much more terrible person. Every time you hear a poignant anecdote about Nixon’s awkwardness, I’d start to feel sorry for the guy. So I did have to part ways with the historical Nixon a little bit just so I would have a character that readers could stick with through the whole book. Was Nixon crazy, or wasn’t he? That’s an answer we just don’t know but it’s also the kind of question I can’t help unwinding. I did set myself up to write the redemption of Richard Nixon, because that was the question I had to answer.”
Clayton Moore is a freelance writer, journalist, book critic, and prolific interviewer of other writers. His work appears in numerous newspapers, magazines, websites and other media. He is based near San Francisco, California.