As if American voters didn’t have enough to worry about, in the last few years, the undead and the uncanny have infiltrated the ranks of U.S. politicians in novels like Seth Grahame-Smith’s “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” and “The Last American Vampire” and Christopher Farnsworth’s wonderful Nathaniel Cade books, which star a vampire Secret Service agent bound by blood to protect the president. Fans of those books might raise an eyebrow at the White House’s decision to allow tourists to use cameras for the first time in 40 years. Garlic and silver bullets seem a safer bet than Instagram for your White House tour; stakes too, though the ban on selfie sticks makes it doubtful they’d make it through security.
“Crooked,” Austin Grossman’s clever new supernatural novel, delves into even more arcane territory. His previous works, “Soon I Will Be Invincible” and “You,” deal with superheroes and the world of video game design (Grossman worked as a game developer in the 1990s). In “Crooked,” he riffs on H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos in all its eldritch glory and creates an antihero as tormented as any Marvel or DC villain: Richard Nixon, 37th president of the United States.
Nixon narrates “Crooked.” The most impressive aspect of the novel is how Grossman creates a nuanced, funny and moving characterization of a man reviled during (and after) his term of office; a Republican president whose achievements — desegregation in the South, detente with the Soviet Union, establishing a relationship with Red China — were overshadowed by the Watergate debacle and the Vietnam War (which ended during Nixon’s term in office).
“I had an ignoble knack for meanness,” Nixon admits in “Crooked.” “Reporters would get out their notebooks and scribble, nodding, knowing they had a quote … No matter how pure I seemed, righteous all the way through, there was always another me that couldn’t be put down, a sly one, a clever one, a lying one, a vicious one. I could be elected president of the whole goddamned United States but I’d always be Tricky Dick.”
This gift for moral compromise accelerates Nixon’s plunge into the supernatural maelstrom when, as a first-term Republican congressman on the House Un-American Activities Committee, he accuses Alger Hiss, a State Department employee and former Communist Party member, of being a Soviet spy. In our world, HUAC’s actions are often compared to those of a witch hunt. In “Crooked,” Nixon uncovers something far worse than witches: a cabal of Soviet agents invoking Yog-Sothoth, Elder God of the Cthulhu cycle, in a New York hotel room.
After witnessing this, Nixon is unwillingly co-opted as a Soviet asset, which he remains throughout the Cold War. Worse, he learns that the Soviets aren’t the only ones engaging in eldritch rites: In Pawtuxet, Mass., a secret government facility created and overseen by Dwight D. Eisenhower is developing even more sinister paranormal weapons to combat the Soviet threat.
“Strategic alliances with folkloric, extraplanar, and subterranean entities. Field deployment of weaponized paleofauna. Large-scale saturation of target areas with invasive fungal and floral xeno organisms …This is the Cold War now,” the president is warned by Henry Kissinger.
“My government was a stranger thing than anyone knew,” Nixon observes in one of the many deadpan asides that make “Crooked” a droll riff on 20th century politics. During his decades-long journey through the fetid swamp of American diplomacy, Nixon views human and inhuman rivals with the same jaundiced eye. He becomes increasingly estranged from his wife, Pat, who remains loyal in public even as she demands separate sleeping arrangements and reveals that she’s never voted Republican in her life.
Nixon is despised by his colleagues in Congress and the White House, and his closest and most enduring ties are to a pair of KGB operatives, Arkady and Tatiana. Their Boris and Natasha skulduggery enlivens “Crooked’s” middle section, which gets bogged down in Nixon’s thankless tenure as Eisenhower’s vice president and in Nixon’s failed 1960 presidential bid. The action picks up once Nixon takes over the Oval Office, especially after Kissinger becomes his national security advisor. Those who recall Kissinger’s seemingly superhuman flair for diplomacy will not be surprised that he is a 1,000-year-old sorcerer.
Grossman’s own impressive narrative gifts are occasionally undermined by slack pacing. And the supernatural elements are often underplayed — most paranormal incursions are delivered as secondhand accounts. We seldom see any monsters, and neither does Nixon, though we do get enticing references to “the Great Worm at Tunguska, and what’s at Arkhangel’sk, and the pine men, and that which you tried to put down with the bomb in ’49.”
This restraint may be in accordance with Lovecraft’s famous dictum that horror is best invoked by a “certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces … a subtle attitude of awed listening, as if for the beating of black wings or the scratching of outside shapes and entities on the known universe’s utmost rim.” But one yearns for more about the kraken that assisted the British during World War II, yanking Messerschmitts from the sky with its tentacles, and the rival magicians associated with the Democratic Party, who “showed their hand at Woodstock.”
Still, those who love deconstructing the supernatural literary references in series like “True Detective” and “Lost” will find much to savor in “Crooked,” which also carries an important message we should all heed as our presidential candidates hit the campaign trail: “If the old gods rise, it will represent a significant realignment of the electoral landscape.”
Mulholland/Little, Brown: 355 pp., $26
Originally published on LATimes.com.