WATERGATE: A Novel. By Thomas Mallon. Pantheon. 432 pages. $26.95.
Thomas Mallon’s “Watergate,” a picaresque vignette of American history, opens by cheekily listing “The Players” of his drama, which run the gamut of pre-Reagan American politics from Richard Nixon, the Kennedys and Henry Kissinger to Bob Woodward, G. Gordon Liddy, Jerry Ford and George Herbert Walker Bush.
Herein lies the crux of Mallon’s challenge: How do you personalize, retell, fictionalize and attempt to narratively capture an event that made and destroyed careers, found its way into untold numbers of memoirs, conspiracy theories, works of history, political science, psychology, etc., and still somehow manage to retain a modicum of mystique and intrigue?
No stranger to the cannibalistic dark arts of historical fiction, Mallon’s “Watergate” is meticulously accurate historically and intensely humane. Suffused with a sympathetic imagination, which forces the reader to look past the political to find complex, contradictory personal lives, Mallon shows that indeed the personal is political, if only by means of unintended consequences and the untidiness of fate, chance and accident.
Of course, Nixon resides firmly at the heart of the novel, not so much anti-hero or arch villain, but rather the slightly tarnished tragic hero, a prince of Denmark resigned to his fate as fatally misunderstood and honorably going through the motions of fighting a political battle he knows is lost.
Surrounded by his complex and fiercely loyal menage of wife Pat, secretary Rose Woods and chief of staff Alexander Haig, Nixon knows he must stand and fall on the trifling bit of information he does know about the botched robbery at the Democratic National Committee headquarters.
But the drama is never Nixon’s alone: from ex-CIA operative Howard Hunt to behind-the-scenes campaigner Fred LaRue and the ambitious Elliot Richardson, the Watergate affair both shapes and is distorted and reshaped by the ambitions, frailties and foibles of an extremely complex and volatile number of individuals.
Mallon’s brilliance, and it’s no mean feat, emerges from the artful and effortless way in which he crafts such a tight narrative and manages to retain an air of happenstance and uncertainty.
“I am not a crook,” Nixon memorably proclaimed. In Mallon’s clever retelling, the reader just might believe him.
Reviewer Zach Weir, a writer based in Oxford, Ohio