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Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2011-11-14
- Reviewer: Staff
Mallon’s historical novels have been moving steadily closer to the present, from the Lincoln era through the Gilded and Jazz ages to the 1940s and, with Fellow Travelers, his last book, the McCarthy era. Here he takes on the ’70s, which, depending on the reader, will seem either ancient or way too recent to be history. As Mallon moves from the break-in of the Democratic National Committee offices to Nixon’s resignation, shifting viewpoints as he goes, he provides a lot of exposition. Some of it, implausibly, occurs in dialogue and internal monologues, as people go over what they know for the sake of readers who no longer do or never did. It’s hard going at first, but the reward is getting to enter the heads of Watergate participants who were off to the side or never wrote memoirs: Nixon secretary Rose Mary Woods, progenitor of the famed 18-minute tape gap; stoic Pat Nixon; meddling Alice Roosevelt Longworth, famously tart-tongued and responsible here for some very funny moments; and Mississippian Fred LaRue, aka the “Bagman.” Mallon makes these people sympathetic, no small feat; readers may be surprised at how much they end up disliking Elliot Richardson, one of the era’s few heroes. If the author can’t bring the story to a satisfying close or explain why so many were so loyal to the president they call “the Old Man,” well, history is often messier than fiction. Agent: The Wylie Agency (Feb.)
A fresh take on an old scandal
We’ve seen the Watergate story imagined and re-imagined from every possible angle. After nearly four decades it would seem we’ve run out of new ways to tell this ubiquitous tale of America’s seedy underbelly. Thomas Mallon is here to prove us wrong.
Watergate is a bold, sweeping retelling of America’s most famous scandal by a gifted historical novelist, but it’s perhaps more notable for what it’s not. It doesn’t rely on thriller-style twists or far-fetched conspiracy theories to ratchet up the entertainment value. This is character-based historical fiction, a peek behind the walls of power as they’re slowly collapsing. This is a different kind of Watergate novel.
Watergate is populated with the characters who committed and witnessed the crimes: Howard Hunt, Nixon’s secretary Rose Mary Woods, Fred LaRue, Charles Colson, First Lady Pat Nixon and even President Richard Nixon himself. Using the immense quantity of research material as both inspiration and evidence, Mallon constructs a new version of the story. The players are the same, the events do not change, but the level of depth is astounding.
With Watergate, Mallon has constructed a panoramic view of the scandal, with settings throughout the United States and beyond, and dozens of powerful characters. This is no longer a detective story or a parable about American politics. This is an epic, pure and simple, an ambitious novel about the perils of power told with unrelenting skill and prowess. Mallon’s big ideas, big names and big events are balanced out by well-crafted prose, pitch-perfect dialogue and gripping pacing.
But perhaps the greatest achievement of Watergate is that it does not have to simplify the implications of the scandal to create a page-turner. Mallon has crafted a fictional re-examination so rich with detail that the events don’t feel as though they happened more than 30 years ago. Watergate feels new and thrilling again in his hands, and that makes this a can’t-miss book for historical fiction fans.