(If the 3% milk was a carefully calibrated amount designed to slow the brains of men as part of a fiendish operation led by the only-appearing-to-be-cows advance force of an alien invasion fleet, then you might have the beginnings of something. Outlandish. Unbelievable. Bizarre. Crazy -- that's what we look for in these kind of stories.)
So what would you say if I told you that Richard M. Nixon was actually the greatest President who ever lived, a man who sacrificed everything to make America permanently safe, a hero who threw away vast power selflessly? Well, I hope that, like your imaginary self in the first paragraph, you'll lean closer and settle in comfortably to learn more.
That's the story Austin Grossman has to tell here. He calls it Crooked. And it tells you that all you know about Nixon -- as well as about the roots of American political power and the real roles of its rulers -- is deeply, deeply wrong. You see, Presidents are magicians. Not in the metaphoric fooling-people sense, or even in the stage-magic sense. Lovecraftian gods are real, the world is full of horrors, and the only thing that keeps human societies safe are mystic bonds forged by blood between rulers and their lands. But magician-kings can be benevolent or malefic, just like any other kind of kings -- and the same goes for presidents. And sometimes power can be claimed in such a way that it can never be taken away again.
I probably shouldn't write too much here about the twists and turns of the plot: in fact, I may have already said too much. (But the whole Nixon's-the-one twist is the whole point of the book; it's hard to discuss it without at least gesturing in the direction of Nixon the ritual practitioner.) Grossman brings us this story in Nixon's own words, and explains many puzzling moments in his life, in the best secret-history style.
And, even more so, Grossman is a fantastic writer of sentences and paragraphs and scenes, with prose that's absolutely perfect dozens of times in Crooked. Look, here's one: "Like an aeons-buried elder god, or a vast extradimensional intelligence, the heart lives by unreadable codes and incomprehensible motives, knowing nothing of dignity or humanity, and more often than not brings only destruction and madness on those who are exposed to its baleful cravings." (p.13)
Or this even better bit, two pages later:
This is a tale of espionage and betrayal and the dark secrets of a decades-long cold war. It is a story of otherworldly horror, of strange nameless forces that lie beneath the reality we know. In other words, it is the story of a marriage.
If I wanted to ding Grossman on anything, it would be on his worldbuilding: there's a faint sense that he's spinning this all out as he goes, and that he hasn't done the obsessive research and background writing of someone like Tim Powers. The world in Crooked isn't thin, but at times it's very convenient, and Grossman is more interested in the flow of Nixon's voice than in nailing down (even in the background or his own head) exactly how ritual magic works and what practitioners need to do to accomplish their ends.
Still, it's a surprisingly emotionally resonant mildly Lovecraftian novel with Richard Nixon as its hero, which is three kinds of unlikely success rolled up into one. And it's a fine third novel from the quirky writer who already brought us Soon I Will Be Invincible and You -- all odd, spiky novels driven by voice, deeply focused on a sideways take on a geeky obsession, and with a slight tendency to skate over lurking plot complications and logical holes.