The Public Burning – Robert Coover (1977)

by Chingiz Ismailov

The Rosenburg trial of the ’50s isn’t something I can claim extensive knowledge of, so perhaps some of this sharp satire was over my head. And it is sharp, for the most part. Coover grabs a scalpel to conduct a hysterical and horrifyingly surreal post-mortem of the events surrounding what was the first death sentence passed by a civil court for espionage in American history (if my facts are correct).

As well as some clean incisions, Coover will occasionally put away the scalpel and start beating the corpse with a Louisville Slugger. No need to be alarmed: he pulls it off with confidence and style, which stem, no-doubt, from his extensive research. To someone ignorant of the details like me, it indeed seemed researched to a T.

A good deal of the story is told in the first-person by a forty-year-old Richard Nixon. This was a great achievement of the novel. Nixon finally seemed like a human being (though still not a particularly good one) instead of a cautionary caricature,  and his array of character flaws seemed, for once, to have reason. The X-rated epilogue, narrated by Tricky Dick himself is jaw-dropping, the final couple of pages are especially… climactic, to say the least. The jaw drops further when one takes into account it was written only a few years after Watergate.

Though Robert Coover’s damning, intelligent, and self-aware satire about the ugly side of the American psyche and political scene is an excellent read, it is definitely not for everyone. Despite this, I would certainly recommend it to anybody interested.

“‘It’s… it’s all right,’ I said. ‘Don’t be afraid. It’s just me, Richard Nixon.'”

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