WATERGATE: A NOVEL by Thomas Mallon
Pantheon (February 21, 2012), 448 pages
With all that’s been discovered, exposed, reported and chronicled on Watergate, writing yet another book, let alone a novel on this scandal seems an arduous if not impossible task. We all have our opinions and memories; our tally of the good guys and bad guys; and even a list of “What ifs?” All true, but Thomas Mallon’s book is both fascinating and scary – not Hitchcock Psycho scary – but scary in how “real” this novel reads – regardless if it is “fiction”.
The author uses an interesting mix of narrators – some well-known, some not so much - to tell the “story” of this third rate burglary, its aftermath and the subsequent downfall and resignation of President Richard Nixon. We meet Howard Hunt, ex-CIA, one of the burglars and maybe a little mentally unbalanced. Fred LaRue, good friend of John Mitchell, presidential aide and White House “bag-man”. The First Lady Pat Nixon and Presidential Secretary Rose Mary Woods – both of these women exceptionally well developed in this book. Alice Roosevelt Longworth, the elderly first daughter of Theodore Roosevelt, acerbic, still mentally sharp and the only one who seems to be able to connect the tragic dots of this scandal. (Alice nicknames John Dean the TST – the tortoise shell(ed) tattler.)
Elliot Richardson, the attorney general removed during “The Saturday Night Massacre” – and former Secretary of Defense, HEW and Undersecretary of State – spends some time in the spotlight, and is on the receiving end of a few barbs. (I don’t know much of Richardson’s “history” to make a call, but that he is presented here as “opportunistic” is an understatement.) John and Martha Mitchell also each play a role - Mr. Mitchell, Nixon confidante, former AG, head of CREEP, and the long suffering husband who took his eye off the ball; Mrs. Mitchell, the intoxicated, shrill, and wildly indiscreet elephant in the room and on the phone. And of course at the center of all this is Richard Nixon, who although not portrayed sympathetically by any means, is still very human here.
Just as fascinating are some of the players given bit parts in the novel. (Maybe because they’re still alive, but there seems to be more to the lack of attention here than that.) G. Gordon Liddy is never on center stage and is off-handedly referred to by several of the above as a macho, overzealous, incompetent buffoon. Henry Kissinger pops in and out of the narrative - usually obsequious and insecure when he does. And just to keep the reader on his or her toes, there are several fictional characters; one of which adds a whole new dimension to Pat Nixon.
I found this an extraordinary book - maybe a tad long, but I’m not smart enough to identify what’s not needed - and one where you rarely, if ever, feel the presence of the author. Not an easy task when you think about it. The only caveat I have is the amount of Watergate knowledge one brings to this book. Mallon drops the reader right into the deep end of the pool with his novel, and even with a fair bit of Watergate lore in my head I had to refer to Wikipedia several times. Still well worth the read and one folks will be talking about for some time to come.
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