“Watergate” Novel By Thomas Mallon Sounds Intriguing
The title of Thomas Mallon’s new novel caught my attention at once. “Watergate” evokes all the images of politics and scandal from the presidency of Richard Nixon which never ceases to entertain and anger.
The book is a work of fiction, and yet is aimed to read like a work of history. That whole style of writing is one which I find intriguing, and from this review sounds as if it has been successfully done.
Historical novelists have to craft their books with care, and spend as much time with the facts as they do with creating a new way to weave the characters and events into a context which then allows readers a broader understanding of historical moments. I still view the work of William Safire with “Freedom” as perhaps the best effort at this type of writing. Am looking forward to bringing Mallon’s work home in a not-so-distant shopping trip.
What Mallon captures particularly well is the fundamental weirdness and mystery at the center of the scandal. Who was trying to achieve what with those break-ins? And why? Given how ineptly they were carried out, could the sloppiness have been intentional — either as a result of double agentry or as individual self-sabotage? In these pages, even those closest to the events remain bewildered by their smallness — their ridiculousness, even — and their contrastingly outsize and ruinous consequences.
It appears that Mallon’s primary goal, one he achieves with great finesse, is to make the portrayals of his characters as believable as possible. Like the rest of us, they aren’t simply moral or immoral but are both clever and defensive, selfish and self-pitying, sweet and loyal, generous and venal. Also, there are quite a lot of them.
Mallon’s initial list of “The Players” in this book contains 112 names, perhaps an unnecessary resource for readers who lived through Watergate, but extremely valuable for those, like me, who did not. Yet Mallon’s control over his material, his ability to subtly cue the reader about what information warrants close attention, means that “Watergate” isn’t usually confusing, even to a younger reader and even though name-bestrewn passages like this one, which describes the night of Nixon’s landslide 1972 re-election, are common:
“Nixon sorted through congratulatory messages and returned phone calls from Rockefeller and Frank Rizzo, Philadelphia’s tough-cop mayor, who made Agnew look like Elliot Richardson, according to Ehrlichman. When Haldeman reminded them of this line, Nixon asked, ‘Was Richardson on the platform at the hotel?’ ”
With such a large cast, it’s no surprise that the characters who show up the most often emerge the most vividly: Fred LaRue, a gentle White House aide from Mississippi, haunted by a not-so-gentle secret, who deliberately flies below the radar of the public; Rose Mary Woods, the president’s tough and steadfast secretary (and yes, the eraser of those tapes — though not for the reason everyone thinks); Elliot Richardson, who serves as secretary of health, education and welfare, then of defense and finally as Nixon’s attorney general, hiding his own presidential ambitions behind a screen of self-righteousness. (Hoping to be tapped as Gerald Ford’s vice president after Nixon’s resignation, Richardson makes an amusingly blunt list “of his rivals’ liabilities”: Gov. Nelson Rockefeller is “too old, pushy,” while Senator Edward Brooke is “too liberal, black.”)