“What if our nation’s worst president was actually a pivotal figure caught in a desperate struggle between ordinary life and horrors from another reality? What if the man we call our worst president was, in truth, our greatest?”
These are the questions posed by the new novel Crooked by Austin Grossman—indeed, the quoted text is from the official book description—into which I recently immersed myself.
The moment I heard Crooked’s premise, it grabbed my interest: a supernatural, Lovecraftian layer to not just the Watergate scandal but to Nixon’s full political career, the entire Cold War, and the institution of the U.S. Presidency itself. (Note: The novel is alternative history, and not meant as some sort of non-fiction conspiracy exposé.) I knew I was going to read it. What I got was a book with a fantastic first half that stumbles toward the end and ultimately leaves me disappointed.
The first half is wonderful, unfolding with a gradual, mysterious foreboding. For me, it brought to mind the style of H.P. Lovecraft’s storytelling (“The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” or “A Shadow Over Innsmouth”), but with a voice unique to author Austin Grossman. And that voice is engaging. Grossman writes Nixon in an immersive way without trying to erase the felonious “Tricky Dick” image, which Nixon himself fully admits to.
Yet the book never quite follows through on its own promise. Supernatural elements—and Nixon actually exploring them or dealing with them—often remain too far in the margins for my taste. I can’t help but wonder if some parts of the last 40% of the novel were edited out; the narrative moves a little too quickly from one moment in time to another, sometimes jumping a few months ahead when I would’ve liked a little more time to linger with the supernatural ramifications. While it can be detrimental in this type of story to pull back the curtain entirely from mysterious forces of darkness, I would have liked more of a peek than is given.
Nixon himself, as a character, also lacks much agency after the earlier parts of the novel. He hears of things, is acted on by other people, and doesn’t seem to do much himself but react. Certain important events Nixon only hears about, and a confrontation with a major antagonist toward the end is over so quickly that I had to back up a couple of sentences to realize what happened.
Bottom line: I did enjoy Crooked for much of my time with it, but found the overall experience not quite as satisfying as I would have liked.