Robert Coover‘s The Public Burning (Viking, 534 pp., $12.95) is a phantasmagoric retelling of the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg story, wherein the couple, convicted of passing plans for the atom bomb to Russia, are electrocuted not in Sing Sing, as in fact they were, but right in the middle of Times Square. A lot of the book, perhaps reflecting expatriate condescension (Coover, born in Iowa, lives in England), is smug, overwritten guff: sophomoric plays patched together from the Rosenbergs’ prison letters and Eisenhower’s speeches; old Time articles in free verse; 1953 news items from all over; and a huge cast of real-life (or at least real-name) characters who fictionally do little more than bump into one another. Hovering over it all is the specter of a final showdown between what Coover seems to think are truly outrageous creations: the Phantom (i.e., Communism) and Uncle Sam (a corn-holing combination of, among others, Captain America, Jay Gould, Melville’s Confidence Man, Sgt. Fury, a lynch mob, Andrew Jackson, and Pecos Bill). Well, they fight it out across the novel, but I’d guess most readers will be skipping through their appearances by page 200, as I was.
What I didn’t skip, but, almost to the end, read with increasing fascination and delight, were the chapters concerning Richard Nixon—the young vice-president, only half-recovered from the Checkers scandal—who through interior monologue narrates more than half of the book. Coover begins with the idea, first set forth by political scientists John Schaar and Francis Carney, that while “Nixon knows he is right… he also knows he is wrong”; pushing that notion as far as it will go, he comes away with a portrait of Nixon—and of the war between the Huck Finn urge to freedom and the Hamiltonian lust for absolute control that has always occupied the American soul—that I think goes even deeper than that of Garry Wills in Nixon Agonistes.
Coover’s Nixon is no fool. He understands that the Rosenberg trial was a sham; that the real story, whatever it is, has little to do with what the public believes and the government pretends to. He finds himself drawn into a queer identification with the Rosenbergs, contrasting his Irish/Quaker upbringing in southern California with their background as Jewish leftists from New York: a few breaks gone the other way, he daydreams, and they might well have changed places. Fantasizing losing his virginity to Ethel (and hers to him), Nixon decides, on the eve of the execution, to crack the case and…
The man who emerges is Nixon as played by the early Bob Hope, or maybe Gene Wilder: crass, bumbling, full of resentments, absurdly likable, complex, intelligent, carnal, conscious of his every weakness, of his every bit of fraud, repressed—and, having analyzed every source of his repression, hating but accepting it. He sees right through the fatuous pose of the Rosenbergs’ prison correspondence; he also sees beyond it, to the rebellion they chose and he denied himself. The Man You Love to Hate is here, but along with him is the man Nixon-haters have rarely allowed themselves to credit: the man who had to be killed, by Nixon, before the monster could take charge. Knowing he is right, but also knowing he is wrong, Nixon begins to consider, impossibly, whether or not his life has been a mistake. Such thoughts lead Nixon straight into that extraordinarily rich and utterly American territory limned out (in Movies) by Manny Farber in his description of the men and women in Preston Sturges’ movies:
“Exuding jaundice, cynicism, and anxiety [they] work feverishly as every moment brings them the fear that their lives are going to pieces, that they are going to be… trapped in such ridiculous situations that headlines will scream about them to a hooting nation for the rest of their lives. They seem to be haunted by the specters of such nationally famous boneheads as Wrong-Way Corrigan, Roy Riegels, who ran backward in a Rose Bowl game, or Fred Merkle, who forgot to touch second base in a crucial play-off game—living incarnations of the great American nightmare that some monstrous error can drive individuals clean out of society into a forlorn no man’s land, to be the lonely objects… of scorn, derision, and self- humiliation.”
One does not have to belabor the point to realize how close Farber’s words come to fantasies that have always driven Nixon—right down to the use of metaphors from sports. Coover takes dead aim on these fears. Slowly, Nixon—self-deprecating, anxious, careful, questioning—begins to come alive, as for most of us he has never quite been. We knew, I think, that the character Nixon as president offered the country was not real; few understood, until the publication of Nixon’s tape transcripts, just how false that character was, how ugly and venal its opposite (no more “real,” perhaps) would have to be: few understood how profound was the split. Weaving hundreds of details about Nixon and the Rosenberg’s into a single fabric, Coover has gone into that gap, and returned with a comic figure worthy of Twain: a Faustian hustler half-determined to escape seduction by the Bad Father (Uncle Sam) he ultimately became. And as a good novelist must, Coover has gotten much too close to his protagonist (Nixon’s identification with the Rosenbergs is the shadow of Coover’s identification with Nixon) to let his reader get away unmarked. What his Nixon finally has to say to us is the last thing we want to hear: “You can be in my dreams, if I can be in yours.”
Rolling Stone, October 6, 1977