Hard to know about serendipity, but when it arrives everything makes sense and Mr. Bib is elevated, engaged, eager as a kid in a candy store, probably a diabetic kid or, more accurately, a still-young reader in a public library or bookstore. I'm a "Nixon man," un-coincidentally the title of a novel written 15 years ago by Michael Cahill, a first-time novelist I met here in the Sierra, at the Community of Writers - Squaw Valley, where I am so lucky to enjoy some of my summer. I thought of that book when I reached page 232 of Ann Beattie's most excellent Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life. Cahill's book seemed to in some perfect way capture the delightful synchronicity of mind (his, mine as reader) that animates Beattie's perfect un-novel, which I'd meant to read months ago but which found its place on my summer reading list, stack, that precarious bedside construction of "mean to read" fiction, nonfiction, poetry, criticism. If this sounds like flimsy alchemy, I'm all for it and Beattie is indeed an alchemist.
"When the Nixons lived in New Jersey after his resignation, trick-or-treaters came to the door, and one Halloween someone stood there in a Nixon mask." So reports Beattie. I would have been that someone, had I been given the chance. Cahill's novel, I should say, is about a Nixon man father, the too-close-for-comfort portrayal paralleling my own as well as Cahill's autobiography, his in the Bay Area. No, neither Cahill or Beattie or Mr. Bib are fans of Nixon; rather, we are fans of other people - writers, cultural critics, historians, entertainers - fascinated by the "disgraced president," all-around crook, sad-mean-tragic and perversely near-infinite source of amusement.
Which is not to say that we (maybe you?) are a Nixon hater, or only a Nixon hater. That's to easy, and not as much fun as tearing the wings off the weird, self-hating, self-aggrandizing "RN," as he came to call himself in some kind of second-person construct which made him feel important and valued. Other Nixon men and women include comic actor and writer Harry Shearer, who wrote and recently starred in the British TV version of his excellent play "Nixon's the One." And it turns out that Ann Beattie has been appropriately if mildly obsessed with America's favorite cipher and warmonger, red-baiter, opportunist and liar. Here's the deal: as a young woman living in DC she and her mother ran into Patricia Nixon trying on shoes, a serendipitous moment which the acclaimed short story writer
might have rewritten as fiction and left at that, or produced a first-person essay for The New Yorker or someplace. But, she argues, the nonfiction story, by which we mean the contrived telling of some kind of truth, is as both irresistible and impossible as only fiction. My sense is that in the case of Pat Nixon, it was still just not enough. I could have read another 100 pages. (But I'm a Nixon man!)
Beattie is as ambitious as her ostensible and mysterious (or benign) subject demands. Mr. and Mrs. Dick are both those kind of peeps. And, yes, there are plenty of imaginative, even experimental novels about Nixon, among them Nixon Carver (more synchronicity, just
wait) and perhaps the best novel on him, Robert Coover's truly amazing The Public Burning. Because RN, and as demonstrated by Beattie, is a trope, a cultural place, a reminder. He reminds me of that joke about the guy banging his head against a wall who, when asked why, responds that it feels so good when he stops.
There's lots of stopping and starting, interrupting, digressing, lectures, jokes in Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life. It's a scrapbook, a playbook, with lots and lots of play. I read only two reviews of the book before realizing that the two reviewers, both prominent newspaper reviewers, just did not get it. Or have a sense of humor. Or have politics. First, Beattie is hilarious. Second, she is offering a fairly transparent puzzle here, with clues about how much fun she is having, and would like us to have. Finally, she constructs a much more real, likable, complicated Pat Nixon than even Pat Nixon deserves so let's not imagine that she is being mean or lazy or giving her protagonist short shrift. (The book is thoroughly researched.)
It's too obvious or easy to say that the writer Ann Beattie is writing about a whole lot more than somebody named Thelma Catherine "Pat" Ryan Nixon, a poor girl who was almost a movie star and then married, reluctantly, the human question mark that was Dick. But I am saying it again, for those two reviewers, who either didn't get or accept the premise of deconstructing, digressing, entertaining, joking around, rearranging the literary opportunity that was Pat: "She married a man who shared her anxiety about expressed emotion: he arrived at ideas and conclusions (those times he ever arrived) by dissembling, hypothesizing, imagining stories that would be told rather than getting as close to the story as he could and elucidating its substance. He believed everything in the world could shift at any moment. This is not a little boy to whom you would have wanted to give an ant farm."
Okay, so that is damn funny, not to mention that it is basically an early, helpful (pg.13) set-up for how to read the book. And the tone? Reminds me of an author evoked, among so many in this fake bio-cultural critique-mock writing lecture meets real appreciation of the art of making story. That's E.L. Doctorow, in Ragtime, where he adopts the "mock pedantic" tone to call attention to the storytelling as ironic yet also somewhere sincere. Get it?
And there's nothing and nowhere and nobody that Beattie won't embrace toward doing this simultaneous take-apart and construction. The famous "Checkers speech" is an obvious choice, and smart, the romancing and the California marriage and the girls and Bebe Robozo and walking morosely on the beach in San
Clemente. But there's Beattie's mom and her short story writer, friend and Chekhov fan Raymond Carver (yes, as in the other book I mentioned, which of course Beattie has read, thought about), Tennessee Williams (cuz Pat read a play and both she and Dick were on stage), the film Rashomon cuz who knows what really happened, paper dolls, Elvis, Chekhov himself, contrived fiction by Pat, photo captions, reviews, Beattie's student papers and emails, again, a mad scrapbook. Titles of chapters include "Approximately Twenty Milk Shakes," "Caracas, Venezuela, 1958," "David Eisenhower Has Some Ideas" and "Moments of Mrs. Nixon's Life I've Invented." At one of many ecstatic moments, Beattie shows off, both embracing her own challenge and meeting it by way of making something out of nothing, and everything. Her Nixonia is pitch-perfect, physical descriptions right on. It's hard not to show off with this kind of material (and why wouldn't you?), with a First Lady who never wrote her own memoir, in a nation which seems to forget just how rich and too-sweet and complicated are the lives of the paper dolls we seem to elect, their strange families, the history they themselves seem to imagine. And what's wrong with pedantic? It's hard to know when not to be pedantic when there's so much teaching to do, tongue in cheek and otherwise. It seems to me that often, again, they can very much resemble each other.
And there's so much good fun in being reminded of the Nixon lore. Yes, Nixon served his guests the cheap wine. Yes, he had the air conditioner turned on it summer so he could light a fire in the fireplace. But what did Pat make of all this, and of Henry the K and what about her secret smoking habit and being, always, a prop in her husband's strangely staged scenes?
Pat did not leave much, so Ann Beattie goes for it. Patricia Nixon's tombstone, on her grave under the lawn at her hubby's Yorba Linda presidential library is so confusingly a) benign b) passive aggressive (I mean you, Dick!) c) cry for helpy d) sad or all of the above (below) that I assumed Beattie would have a go at it, maybe rewriting it or creating a scene where Pat figures out how she can get revenge on everybody.
In that chapter I started with, "'The Dead'" in New Jersey," Beattie brings in James Joyce, follows it with the China trip, and a completely, wonderfully composed illustration of literary anachronism (as if this were a how-to book) in a should-have-been-true scene of Pat trying to teach Hillary Clinton to be, well, less a fully realized person and political presence than she is, and more like, well a quiet First Lady who bakes cookies and does interviews for Good Housekeeping. Because, as you will recall, Hillary got busted for seeming, in our insanely infantile misogynistic right-wing media culture to somehow not "value" stay-at-home mommery and cookie baking.
Feeling giddy yet, righteously mean, redeemed, sardonic? Good for you. I mean it. It's good for your heart, friends. Aerobic. Acerbic. Like that. The book switches up and moves around so elegantly, quickly, that you don't care what is real or made up. All of it could be true. Sociological deadpan, childhood recollection, journalistic "cut-up" and, best of all, a precise and so-satisfying homage to the Readers Digest Lawrence Welk un-idiom of the time, which I remember so well, by which I mean am puzzled by, delighted, still frustrated with still. This book is like tearing the wings off a country, if you go in for that kind of thing. And I do. Because I am a Pat Nixon man!
Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life, Ann Beattie, Scribner, 282 pgs., $26.00
The Public Burning, Robert Coover, Grove Press, 545 pgs., $17.00
A Nixon Man, Michael Cahill, St. Martin's, 240 pgs., Out of print.
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Nixoncarver, Mark Maxwell, St. Martin's Griffin, 192 pgs. Out of print.
Andrew Tonkovich hosts the Wednesday night literary arts program Bibliocracy Radio on KPFK 90.7 FM in Southern California.