three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
58-May-June-2012
user_rating: 
0

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737074.pngCurrently the director of the creative writing program at George Washington University, Thomas Mallon has published seven previous novels, including Bandbox (2004) and Fellow Travelers ( 3.5 of 5 Stars July/Aug 2007), as well as seven works of nonfiction. A former faculty member at Vassar College and literary editor at GQ, Mallon’s work has appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, the New Yorker, and the New York Times Magazine.

The Story: On June 17, 1972, five men were arrested for breaking into the Democratic Party’s national headquarters in Washington, D.C. The subsequent FBI investigation and the Nixon Administration’s attempts to conceal its involvement toppled the presidency and shattered the foundations of the government. Mallon reimagines this scandal through a number of its participants, including former U.S. Attorney General John Mitchell and his friend Fred LaRue, prominent members of the shady Committee for the Re-Election of the President; E. Howard Hunt, a former CIA operative who, with his wife Dorothy, diverted campaign funds to pay off coconspirators; Rose Mary Woods, Nixon’s devoted secretary; and withering Washington socialite Alice Roosevelt Longworth.
Pantheon. 448 pages. $26.95. ISBN: 9780307378729

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"In Watergate, he adroitly captures the banal venality of Nixon, the loyal scheming of his political intimates and the complex interactions among shadowy ex-CIA agents and others that ended in criminal acts. Mallon also conjures up back stories for some of the characters and frames others from a more humane perspective than history has bestowed upon them." Scott Martelle

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Readers who deem the book’s liberties too free can stick to the tonnage of Watergate memoirs, transcripts, investigative reports and marginalia. More fun-loving types can take Watergate as lively, witty drama and give Mr. Mallon a pass on the grueling fact-checking his story might otherwise warrant." Janet Maslin

Miami Herald 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Too often characters are mouthpieces for expository dialogue. … [And] a lengthy subplot involving a skeleton in LaRue’s closet is labored and unconvincing. These are quibbles, however. Watergate is finely polished." Ariel Gonzalez

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Thomas Mallon’s entertaining and occasionally poignant novel leaves the import of Watergate to historians. … There’s very little sense that Watergate was a significant, if not scary, crisis for the United States." Bob Hoover

Seattle Times HHHJ
"Mallon’s cast of characters is vast, and the narrative maneuvers he uses to shoehorn them all into the picture feel a bit forced in the first 50 pages of the book. But once he’s got his protagonists identified and in place, Watergate becomes a pleasurably perverse and darkly comedic thriller." Michael Upchurch

Wall street Journal 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Watergate is a vivid and witty novel with a large cast of principal and supporting players. … Mr. Mallon manipulates his characters to suit his story, even descending into a kind of melodrama that is ill-suited to the Watergate events of history, which were dramatic enough in themselves." Frank Gannon

San Francisco Chronicle 1.5 of 5 Stars
"Seen through the musings of these [outsiders], the worst political scandal in American history becomes a soap opera. Watergate’s unforgettable events—the Senate hearings, the Saturday Night Massacre, the ‘I am not a crook’ speech—enter the narrative like news bulletins interrupting the melodrama." Bruce Watson

Critical Summary

In this fictional exploration of the largest presidential scandal in U.S. history, Mallon seamlessly interweaves actual events and historical personages with fabrications. Most critics enjoyed the interplay, but some protested that in choosing some incidents and protagonists over others, Mallon relegates significant aspects of the story to mere footnotes. Nevertheless, Mallon fleshes out the humanity of these individuals and imbues the proceedings with an elegance and allure that would likely elude a work of nonfiction. A familiarity with the scandal, while helpful, is not necessary, and a list of characters is provided. "A vivid and witty novel" (Wall Street Journal), Watergate will appeal most to readers with an appreciation of—or tolerance for—the whims of historical fiction.

Supplementary Reading

737099.pngAll the President’s Men | Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward (1974): This harrowing, real-life political thriller, written by the Washington Post reporters who won a Pulitzer Prize for their investigation, remains the gold standard in the Watergate scandal and investigative journalism.

737110.pngThe Wars of Watergate The Last Crisis of Richard Nixon | Stanley I. Kutler (1990): Historian and University of Wisconsin Professor Stanley Kutler has put together one of the most comprehensive accounts of the central role President Nixon played in the conspiracy that brought down his entire administration.