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Thursday, March 1, 2012

Mallon Depicts Watergate Through the All-Too-Human Actions of Seven Players

Posted By on Thu, Mar 1, 2012 at 9:30 AM

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One of the best-documented crises in American history now gets a novel: Watergate, by Thomas Mallon, the literary critic and author of Mrs. Paine's Garage, Bandbox, and Dewey Defeats Truman. Watergate has been written about for 40 years, ever since the night the hotel and apartment complex from which the scandal took its name was burgled at the behest of Nixon's "plumbers" -- a secret cadre that located and fixed information leaks -- to bug telephones belonging to the Democratic National Committee. So how does a historical novelist fictionalize a period that has already entered posterity with a whole library's worth of books?

Mallon presents the period from June 17, 1972, to August 9, 1974 (Nixon's resignation), through the eyes of seven key actors in the drama, major as well as minor. From these perspectives, Mallon imagines the "narrow places" in the Watergate scandal, and you can think of the novel as a collection of missing 18-minute gaps. Yes, Mallon does fictionalize the contents of that famous "missing" portion of Nixon's White House tapes, and that approach applies to the book as a whole: fleshing out story in terms of character and motivation, as opposed to a nonfictional series of well-known bullet points. Mallon brings the unexamined motivations of the players into the light that only a novel can provide. His portrait of 1970s Washington, D.C., is more concerned with who was there, what they may have been thinking and feeling, and the large and small ways the scandal affected them.

The Watergate complex
  • The Watergate complex

Mallon writes from the (third-person limited) perspectives of Nixon himself; his long-suffering first lady, Pat; his faithful secretary Rose Mary Woods; the little-known Fred LaRue, who worked for Nixon in ever-shifting unofficial capacities; Elliott Richardson, who served in four successive cabinet posts; tortured spy novelist, Nixon "plumber" and burglary organizer E. Howard Hunt; and, most unlikely, Alice Roosevelt Longworth (1884-1980), TR's oldest daughter, Washington socialite nonpareil , and enthusiastic gossip.

Mallon avoids dramatizing such well-known moments as the break-in itself or the congressional investigation in favor of focusing on unknown behind-the-scenes moments that reveal personality and motivation. This approach sometimes finds the author backed into a corner. For the sake of continuity and context, Mallon sometimes refers to the factual superstructure of Watergate in bursts of erratic expository prose. The point of view becomes problematic at these moments, veering close to omniscient territory when the perspective is supposed to be limited.

Mallon's fictional incarnations of these real people find themselves caught in the unstoppable tide of history -- and our knowledge of the outcome raises our interest in how they choose to deal with their situations. Longworth's portrayal is the most purely entertaining. She is more than just a Washington "lifer." She has known every president of the 20th century, and this makes her alternately dangerous and appealing to political favor-seekers of every kind.

Nixon's resignation: "Nobody will ever write a book, probably, about my mother."
  • Nixon's resignation: "Nobody will ever write a book, probably, about my mother."

Nixon is portrayed as edgily vulnerable, conflicted and Shakespearean. He has appeared this way in other renditions, too, although here his personality's many oddities are reduced in scale, a technique by which Mallon renders the president no "bigger" a figure than the other six protagonists in the novel. Nixon's bizarre and contradictory complexities are expressed with great economy, as in this excerpt from Longworth's point of view:

... the creased, naked expression on this darkest of dark horses, this misanthrope in a flesh-presser's profession, able to succeed from cunning and a talent for denying reality at close range. She didn't share his general dinginess: She smiled in delight, however viciously, whereas he smiled only in a kind of animal desperation. But she shared the darkness beneath and the capacity for denial...

Nixon is Watergate's figurehead, and he has provided a dramatic engine for the tale's many retellings. In Mallon's fictionalization of the affair, we are afforded several miniature portraits that put human faces on the well-known names of Hunt, Richardson, and president and Mrs. Nixon -- names that have become iconic on their own, lacking realistic substance but overflowing with indictment in most versions of the story. Mallon has made a kind of sense out of Watergate that historians have so far had trouble providing, perhaps because of a preoccupation with political loyalties or other agendas. He portrays the crisis as the product of volatile human personalities interacting in one of the strangest and most pressurized cities in the world.

Follow Casey Burchby and SF Weekly's Exhibitionist blog on Twitter.

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