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Sodomizing Richard Nixon

Written by Eli Katz on Wednesday, July 27 2011 and posted in Columns

Eli Katz discusses and links to some of the best short fiction available for free on the Web. This week's pick: Robert Coover's "Going for a Beer."

Robert Coover is widely regarded as a giant in contemporary American literature. He is part of a generation of experimental writes -- including John Barthes, Donald Barthelme, and Thomas Pynchon -- who dominated U.S. literature back in the 1960s and 1970s. Many, especially Pynchon, remain dominant voices. Coover's work, like the work of his contemporaries, is often described as postmodern, metafictional, and hypertextual. In other words, his stories lack realistic characters and coherent plots. Many critics love these kinds of stories, noting that they highlight the tragic absurdities of the modern world.

I hate this kind of literature, generally. And I am not a fan of Coover's work, in particular. I find his writing needlessly crass, politically naive and, worst of all, boring. For me, what Coover scholars regard as his masterpiece, the 1977 novel The Public Burning, epitomizes the very worst excesses in his work.

The book centers on Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, a Jewish-American couple executed, in 1953, for committing espionage during a time of war. Julius had worked as an Army engineer during the Second World War, but was fired when his superiors learned of his earlier membership in the Communist Party. Evidence was then uncovered that Julius had provided Soviets with classified information about the atomic bomb.

The execution of Julius and his wife was, and remains, controversial. Many view it as a political lynching used to fuel and justify the anti-communist investigations by Senator Joseph McCarthy. Recent revelations suggest that while Julius was indeed guilty of espionage, he did not aid the Soviets in their development of the atomic bomb. Worse, court documents show major inconsistencies in witness testimony and a stunning lack of evidence that Ethel ever participated in spying.

The Rosenberg case is complicated and dramatic, perfect material for a novelist to explore. But rather than investigate the historical facts in a thoughtful and balanced way, Coover uses the basic details of the case to write what comes across today as an over-the-top caricature of conservative politics and conservative politicians. All the usual suspects are attacked and debased in The Public Burning -- above all, Richard Nixon. At the time of the Rosenberg execution, Nixon was Dwight Eisenhower's vice president; at the time of the novel's publication, he was the disgraced commander in chief, driven from the White House three years earlier.

Two episodes in The Public Burning exemplify the kind of pointless perversion that defines much of the novel, and Coover's work more generally. Nixon, riding a train, witnesses a gang rape and, rather than intervene, he watches the attack with enthusiasm, even drawing political inspiration from the violence. As he explains, "And then, as they'd dragged the dazed woman out of the seat and spread-eagled her down at one end of the car, it suddenly came to me what I had to do! I had to stop and change the script! It was dangerous, I knew, politically it could be the kiss of death, but it was an opportunity as well as a risk, and my philosophy has always been: don't lean with the wind, don't do what is politically expedient, do what your instinct tells you is right!"

This passage is meant to be ironic on at least two levels. First, here is Nixon claiming to launch a moral and political crusade, while he allows the brutalization of a helpless woman to continue in front of him. Second, here is a man claiming to avoid political expediency, when he did nothing to prevent the worst outrages of McCarthyism and when later, as president, he tried to conceal the warrantless surveillance of his political rivals. But the irony in this scene is so blazingly obvious that it becomes embarrassing.

The second episode serves as a kind of revenge fantasy for the American public.  After having survived two decades of Nixon's often shameful political career, the reader witnesses here, in the final pages of Coover's novel, Richard Nixon being sodomized and screaming out, "I love you, Uncle Sam." Nixon, it turns out, is so warped by patriotism, so debauched by it, that he doesn't mind when he is literally buggered by it. Again, this satire is embarrassingly juvenile. I suspect that some of the seemingly irrational hatred against liberal intellectuals today in the U.S. stems from the kind of gross assaults that liberal intellectuals like Coover launched against conservatives several decades ago.

But despite my disdain for much of Coover's work, I find his recent short story, "Going for Beer" brilliant.  (It was published last March in The New Yorker and you can read it here: Thematically and stylistically, it is much like his earlier work: sexual and absurd. And yet neither the sex nor the absurdity is so overdone to undermine the basic pleasure of reading the story. I can't recommend much else by Coover. But it is satisfying to find, at long last, a story by this critically acclaimed author that I enjoy. Of course, this is a short-lived love affair with Coover. Just last week, The New Yorker published another story of his and I find it as dull as the rest of his work.

Written or Contributed by: Eli Katz

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