It’s Richard Nixon Versus the Forces of Darkness in ‘Crooked’
Novelist Austin Grossman humanizes Tricky Dick
by DAVID AXE
A pivotal scene comes about a hundred pages into Austin Grossman’s 2015 science-fiction novel Crooked, an alternative history of Richard Nixon’s rise and fall.
It’s 1953. Nixon has just been elected vice president — and he has a lot to learn. In a whirlwind of briefings by “the solemn young men of Strategic Air Command” and the “cold-blooded intellectuals” from the RAND Corporation, Nixon begins to grasp the brutal strategic calculations of America’s apocalyptic rivalry with the Soviet Union.
Both countries possess enough atomic bombs and long-range bombers to wipe out the other’s own bombers — and then devastate its cities.
Clearly, the first player to move held an enormous advantage, Nixon thinks. So why haven’t the Soviets — or the Americans — already attacked? “There must be another dimension to the strategic landscape,” Nixon says out loud.
In fact, Nixon already knows full well what this other dimension is. He’s just trying to subtly tell Pres. Dwight Eisenhower that he’s figured it out.
In Grossman’s fantastical version of the Cold War, the weaponry isn’t just conventional and nuclear. It’s also infernal. “Xeno-, exo- and cryptobiological ordnance,” Henry Kissinger — himself a thousand-year-old necromancer — explains.
Hybrid demon-human infantry divisions. Ancient demi-gods that are willing to ally with one superpower or the other, but for a terrible, terrible price. Killing spells cast through diplomatic channels by heads-of-state who’ve sold their souls to preserve their unions — and whose dark powers render a nuclear first-strike ineffective.
After all, you can’t nuke evil.
Nixon discovers these dark forces early in his political career. The charm of Grossman’s novel — and yes, I realize I’m late to this particular party — is the way it explains some of the chilling episodes from Nixon’s career— the actual Nixon, that is.
In real life in 1948, Nixon — then a young California Congressman — weaseled his way into a prominent role on the House Committee on Un-American Activities and targeted Alger Hiss, a senior State Department official whom Nixon suspected of being a communist. Hiss maintained his innocence, and to this day there’s no definitive proof of his alleged spying.
To Nixon, the truth might have been beside the point. Nixon’s attacks on Hiss were a publicity boon — and helped to catapult him into the Senate and, later, the White House.
But in Grossman’s recasting, Hiss is not only a spy for the Russians — he’s been spying on America’s paranormal armaments program. Falling in with Hiss’ own Soviet handlers, Nixon follows the trail to a mysterious New Hampshire farm. The things he sees there lure the future president down a dark path that eventually lands him in that fateful meeting with Eisenhower.
Our real history remembers Nixon as a law-breaker and bully. And, when he got caught, the only president to resign the office.
Grossman gives Nixon a break. I won’t spoil the book any more than I already have. But suffice it to say, the Nixon of Crooked has good reasons for doing what he does. Even Watergate can make sense in a world where extra-dimensional beings compete with the USA and the USSR for world domination.
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