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Crooked' offers alternate Nixon

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Novel posits a supernatural side to Tricky Dick

What if Richard Nixon was not our worst president, but our greatest?

That's the question posed by Austin Grossman's 'Crooked' (Mulholland, $26), a novel that offers an intriguing explanation for Nixon's punchline of a political career. What if Richard Nixon had in fact stumbled upon the darkest of dark secrets buried between the lines of the United States Constitution? What if he discovered that the Cold War was about far more than a mere nuclear arms race, but rather the weaponization of occult and paranormal forces from beyond our dimension?

'Crooked' tells the story in Nixon's own words. This Nixon was compromised early on, back when he was just a wet-behind-the-ears junior Congressman from California. In the course of his grandstanding attempt to demonize Alger Hiss as a Communist, Nixon's desperate inquiries lead him to discover that Hiss was involved with far more than state secrets.

He crosses paths with Arkady and Tatiana, two Russian agents who have a surprisingly easy time turning Nixon to their cause. Nixon's career rises and falls in unexpected ways; all the while, he is torn between his own selfish desires and his increasingly terrifying understanding of what the stakes truly are.

He ascends to the Senate. He's chosen by Eisenhower as his vice president. He loses to JFK. He mounts his comeback in 1968. All of it serving as the public face of a private war being waged over the future of America's soul. Through it all, Tricky Dick plods away, never knowing which side he has chosen or which side he wants to choose.

Unsure who to trust and unable to be the hero that he wants to be, Nixon commits everything he can to trying to rouse America's otherworldly defenses before the Soviets can unleash their militarized Lovecraftian horrors against democracy.

In this world, the United States Presidency is a position of power. Not just political power, either the U.S. President has access to unimaginable mystic forces, though not all were able to access it. George Washington and Abraham Lincoln and Dwight Eisenhower had it; Truman and JFK and LBJ did not.

Essentially, 'Crooked' offers a secret history of Richard Nixon's political career. It shows the motivations behind some of Nixon's most well-known moments the Hiss trials, the debate with Kennedy, his closeness to Kissinger, the Watergate debacle as all connected to the many magical forces conspiring against both him and the United States.

The best alternative history is the kind whose wild fictions are built on a foundation of fact; Grossman provides just enough truth to make his story soar. The portrait he paints is of a striving, venal man thrust into circumstances he desperately wants, yet can't possibly handle. The twists on recognizable figures Eisenhower, Kissinger, Pat Nixon, Howard Hunt are great fun for anyone intrigued by that period in our history.

One thing that should be noted is that 'Crooked' is a wildly readable book one whose fast pacing and idiosyncratic storytelling lead to an unending string of self-bargained 'Just one more chapter' promises. It's not every day that a book comes along that will entertain political junkies and speculative fiction fans alike; if you're one or the other or both, 'Crooked' is definitely for you.

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