Review: CROOKED by Austin Grossman (Mulholland)

GrossmanA-CrookedAn excellent secret history

Richard Milhous Nixon lived one of the most improbable lives of the twentieth century. Our 37th President’s political career spanned the buttoned-down fifties, the Mad Men sixties and the turbulent seventies. He faced down the Russians, the Chinese, and ultimately his own government. The man went from political mastermind to a national joke, sobbing in the Oval Office, leaving us with one burning question: how could he have lost it all?

Here for the first time is the true story told in his own words: the terrifying supernatural secret he stumbled on as a young man; the truth behind the Cold War; the truth behind the Watergate coverup. What if our nation’s worst president was really a pivotal figure caught in a desperate struggle between ordinary life and horrors from another reality? What if the man we call our worst president was, in truth, our greatest?

In Crooked, Nixon finally reveals the secret history of modern American politics as only Austin Grossman could reimagine it. Combining Lovecraftian suspense, international intrigue, Russian honey traps and a Presidential marriage whose secrets and battles of attrition were their own heroic saga, Grossman’s novel is a master work of alternative history, equal parts mesmerizing character study and nail-biting Faustian thriller.

I was a relative latecomer to Austin Grossman’s novels — I only read You in 2014, and have yet to read Soon I Will Be Invincible (which I do own). When I first read the synopsis for Crooked, though, I knew I wouldn’t wait to read this one: I am a US politics and history nut, with a particular interest in the presidency. So, given that Grossman’s a great author, and that he was mixing two of my favourite things (politics and SFF), Crooked has been one of my most-anticipated novels of the year. I’m very happy to say, I was not disappointed. This is an excellent novel.

Told from the perspective of the president, we get his take on events that publicly shaped his political career — everything from his time as a leader in the anti-communist movement, his dirty tricks, and more. In addition, however, we are shown what really happened. Grossman has done a fantastic job of weaving in the new supernatural element into the historical record. The balance is just right, too: the author never goes into too much detail about the magic, and in fact leaves a lot undefined, loosely developed. A great amount happens ‘off-stage’. I thought this might be frustrating, but I actually loved it — everything from the insinuation that Eisenhower was actually undead, to the strange creatures/demons who exist on a parallel plane and somewhat frequently break through to our world.

In addition to this secret history aspect of the novel, Grossman also manages to pose a fair few questions and observations about the real Nixon and his rise to power. Considering that he was so disliked by his colleagues, I couldn’t help but wonder how on earth he really became president… [If after reading this you also come away wondering the same thing, you’re in luck: it would appear to be Nixon’s “turn” on the presidential biography circuit, with a number of interesting new volumes out this year — see below.]

Needless to say, I was hooked from very early on. This is a great, near-flawless mash-up of history, Cold War espionage, politics and the supernatural. And, perhaps, an anti-hero’s journey. Grossman’s writing and world-building is sparse and tight, and the narrative momentum never dipped. I thoroughly enjoyed this, and can’t wait to read what Grossman writes next.

Very highly recommended.

*

Crooked is published on July 28th (US) and 30th (UK), 2015, by Mulholland Books, who also publish You. For more, be sure to check out the author’s website, and follow him on Twitter and Goodreads. You can read an excerpt from the novel here.

Select further Nixon reading: Richard M. Nixon by Elizabeth Drew; One Man Against the World by Tim Weiner; Being Nixon by Evan Thomas; Nixonland by Rick Perlstein; The President and the Apprentice by Irwin F. Gellman; RN by Richard Nixon

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