Take Richard Nixon’s well-documented political biography and much-analyzed personal foibles, throw in some good old-fashioned Cold War spy craft, and finish it off with an odd mix of National Treasure and Men in Black, and that approximates what Austin Grossman serves up in his latest novel. His inspiration, apparently, is that no one has ever definitively explained the motive behind the Watergate break-in. That Grossman is a video game designer (Tomb Raider, Deus Ex) hints at what to expect.
Decidedly, this is Dick Nixon as you’ve never seen him before, along with a whole cast of historical figures playing wildly against type. In particular, there’s Ike Eisenhower as Wizard-in-Chief, an other-worldly Henry Kissinger—“no one liked to be within two feet of him”, and with good reason—and not-so-dutiful wife Pat, who Nixon, as first-person narrator, describes as even more misunderstood than he. Though this is wildly alternative history, Grossman effectively captures the zeitgeist of the late ´40s and early ´50s as the Cold War blossomed and the atomic age and its doomsday implications hung like a mushroom cloud over everything. The premise here is that the world is filled with demonic beasts and various extraterrestrials, that the New World population was allowed to survive based on black magic and shadowy deals with this other populace, that every U.S. president has had more or less knowledge and mastery of these forces, and finally that part of the Cold War arms race was the competition to control and deploy these unpleasant forces. While Grossman offers glimpses of these sinister projects, he never gives us the big reveal; he only alludes to the showdown Nixon orchestrates to allow mankind to continue, paid for with his own downfall. Nixon tells us that he’s seen the devil, but we never do. What a letdown.