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“This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.”

Coincidental, eh? Looks like in-house counsel may have chosen the wrong legal legend for the frontispiece…

TitleWatergate: A Novel, by Thomas Mallon

Completed: March 5, 2012 (#16)

Recommendation: Provocative and imaginative historical fiction–likely even more rewarding for those with personal recollections of the “long national nightmare”

Roughly speaking, there are two categories of historical fiction with which A Superfluous Man is familiar:

In novels of the first category (e.g., Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War and War and Remembrance), fictitious characters observe, rather than participate in, historical events. Wouk’s epic two-volume narrative surveys the Second World War, from the blitz of Poland to the atom bomb, as experienced by Captain Victor “Pug” Henry and his family. Along the way, the Henrys are bystanders to (or at most minor participants in) all the major events of the war, meeting and conversing with heads of state and other historical figures whose inner lives are opaque to the third-person narrator and readers. Roosevelt is an exogenous variable in the novels’ equation–a wheelchair, a cloud of smoke, a cigarette holder. He is simply a given quantity to which Captain Henry must respond and react. (The locus classicus of this form of historical fiction is Tolstoy’s War and Peace, where Napoleon, the Weltgeist zum Pferd, crashes through the lives of the Rostovs.)

In novels of the second category (e.g., James Clavell’s Shōgun), the protagonists are themselves fictionalized versions of historical figures. Thus, in Shōgun, John Blackthorne’s story roughly follows the life of English sailor William Adams, Toranaga is a stand-in for Tokugawa Ieyasu, etc. The “history” lies mainly in the atmospherics: the Battle of Sekigahara did not take place in the manner Clavell describes, but the telltale sound of a Christian boiling conveys a soupçon of the quaint charm of medieval Japan.

Mr. Mallon’s provocative Watergate falls into neither of these categories. The novel boldly obliterates any line between the “historical” and the “fictional,” a fact to which the author alludes in his afterword:

In this book, as in my previous novels, I have operated along the always sliding scale of historical fiction. The text contains deviations from fact that some readers will regard as unpardonable and others will deem unworthy of notice. But this remains a work of fiction, not history.Mr. Mallon’s poetic license is neither unpardonable nor unworthy of notice.

To the contrary, his flights of imagination, which put flesh on the unknowable bones of the Watergate scandal, are what makes this novel succeed.

The reader is treated to the still, small voice of Pat Nixon:

She was stuck where she was with the reporters. Especially when it came to clothes. That beautiful inaugural gown with the golden jacket! On anyone else it would have been deemed magical, but once she stepped into it, Women’s Wear Daily pronounced: ‘schoolteacher’s night out.’ She’d felt so bad for poor Karen Stark, who’d done such a beautiful job designing it. Dick had been furious, and gone on a toot about pansies in the fashion business, which of course had nothing to do with the sharp-clawed lady cats in the fashion press.

And to repartée between Nixon and Kissinger, with more than a little verisimilitude:

When her moment ended, she decided to linger by the wall for a bit, and just as she took up her position Kissinger walked in, a genuinely unscheduled arrival. He pretended to regret interrupting and, as the cameraman continued to film, he told the president about his latest, just-completed trip to China. ‘Too many banquets,’ said the national security advisor, patting his stomach. ‘How were the dancing girls?’ asked Nixon. ‘They were all wearing tunics and carrying rifles. You’ve seen the ballets. It is always like watching the Rockettes invade Normandy.’

It is the lesser players of Mr. Mallon’s dramatis personae who steal the show: Rose Mary Woods, President Nixon’s secretary; presidential aide Fred LaRue; “Plumber” Howard Hunt; journalist Joseph Alsop; and daughter of TR and puckish wit, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, far and away the most memorably portrayed character (and a real hoot):

‘I’m sorry to tell you that Lyndon Johnson died last night.’ Pat said it slowly, thinking to cushion any shock. ‘I imagine there’ll be loud grief in the animal kingdom,’ responded Alice. ‘Will they be putting him in the Rotunda?’

(Coincidentally, the New York Times‘ favorable review of Watergate–see link below–also used the cliché “scene stealer” in reference to Longworth.)

It would be a shame to reveal too much and thus deny the Reader his enjoyment of this sure-to-please airplane/beach read. Let us just say that, while stopping short of entering Dan Brown territory, Mr. Mallon advances some clever historical twists to explain such mysteries as why the “third-rate burglary” was ordered in the first place, what passed through Dorothy Hunt’s mind as her jetliner hurtled toward the ground, what happened to the missing 18-minutes of tape, and what “really” happened to Fred LaRue’s father in that duck hunting blind in Canada.

There are pitfalls to Mr. Mallon’s approach: let the record show conclusively that the character Tom Garahan did not actually exist and that his poignant love affair with the First Lady, as Mr. Mallon freely admits, is entirely fictitious.

Nevertheless, all these “theories” are delivered in the way of fun, fictional surmises–Mr. Mallon is no kook, and A Superfluous Man does not expect to see him on the lecture circuit touting Mary Magdalene’s connections to the Merovingians anytime soon (or whatever it is that The Da Vinci Code was about). Heartily recommended.