The Public Burning
As all the world must know by now, The Public Burning is about the Times Square auto-da-fé of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, and its principal character is Vice President Richard M. Nixon, who at the end is buggered by Uncle Sam in an act of Incarnation. Unless at this late date Nixon’s lawyers or the Rosenberg sons decide to sue, the book may have a chance to enjoy the moderate success it deserves on its own. The conspiratorial secrecy, the ballyhoo, and the extravagant claims accompanying its publication can only distort the true shape and magnitude of the novel. Whether the hoopla will much affect sales without the goosing of an outside legal intervention, I have no way of knowing, but certainly it can lead to inevitably disappointed expectations and a consequent revulsion from the actual achievement. Mustering whatever objectivity remains possible after the assault, I would maintain that this angry, cruel, obsessively detailed, intermittently powerful, sometimes funny, and often tedious book is Coover’s best work since The Origin of the Brunists (1966), though not—sensationalism aside—as impressive a work of fiction as that very interesting first novel.
From its opening pages The Public Burning sets out to overwhelm the reader (the enemy?) with a shattering barrage of names, facts, references, and quotations pertaining to a hyped-up vision of these United States in June 1953. Though one is aware that a show of erudition about a recent decade can be rather easily worked up by reading back issues of Time and the Times, the inclusiveness of Coover’s re-creation is astonishing. It extends from the obvious political figures and issues to the mouthings of obscure congressmen and the corniest manifestations of popular culture. Here is a typical bombardment from the prologue, concerning the national preparations for the execution:
An Entertainment Committee is appointed, chairmanned by Cecil B. De Mille, whose latest success was last year’s Oscar-winning Greatest Show on Earth, with assistance from Sol Hurok, Dan Topping, Bernard Baruch, the AEC and Betty Crocker, Conrad Hilton, whose Albuquerque hotel figured prominently in the prosecution’s case against the Rosenbergs, Sam Goldwyn and Walt Disney, Ed Sullivan, the director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the various chiefs of staff, Sing Sing Warden Wilfred Denno, the Holy Six, and many more. They audition vocalists, disk jockeys, preachers, and stand-up comics,…commission Oliver Allstorm and His Pentagon Patriots to compose a special pageant theme song,…and hire a Texas high-school marching band to play “One Fine Day” from Madame Butterfly, “The Anniversary Waltz,” and the theme from High Noon, said to be a particular favorite these days of President Eisenhower. The President, just back from a week of moralizing and whoopee in the Badlands and Oyster Bay, has been visited at the White House this week by the Singing Cowboy Gene Autry, and Gene has been invited to render “When It’s Twilight on the Trail” and “Back in the Saddle Again” at the electrocutions.
The detailing of the early Eisenhower era is so inordinate that some benighted scholar could easily devote a monograph, if not a book, to the tracing of Coover’s sources and the identification of allusions and quotations; he would have to be wary in distinguishing the real from the fabricated or parodic, for Coover is as proficient in manufacturing pseudo events as he is in retrieving actual ones from the past. The obsessiveness with which he documents this sound-and-light show of a novel is probably unmatched in recent American fiction, though Pynchon (a kindred spirit) comes close in Gravity’s Rainbow; from the past, the Cetology chapter of Moby-Dick provides perhaps the closest analogue to Coover’s methodology. Too often the documentary effects of The Public Burning degenerate into mere cataloguing or recitation, and the reader’s temptation to skip becomes irresistible.
The horror of the Rosenbergs’ situation is established at the beginning and then served up, with ingenious variations, so often that one’s sensibilities are blunted. Passage by passage, the pathos, the shame, the indignity, and the injustice of the “final solution” are conveyed poignantly enough, but Coover, relying upon the strategy of excess, puts the reader in the position of a jaded sadist who must devise more and more exquisite elaborations of his tortures in an effort to catch up with a fast receding gratification. Even the grisly details of the electrocution itself—when Ethel’s body, “sizzling and popping like firecrackers, lights up with the force of the current, casting a flickering radiance on all those around her”—lose the horrific impact which they have, when quoted out of context. The weaknesses in the strategy of excess show up also in the other gimmicks which Coover employs to heighten the razzle-dazzle of his book, such as the “Intermezzo” entitled “The War Between the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness,” which is an extended quotation from an Eisenhower speech, or the final “Intermezzo”: “A Last-Act Sing Sing Opera by Julius and Ethel Rosenberg”; dull in themselves, they lie like boulders in the reader’s path.
As other reviewers have pointed out, the major fictional achievement of the book is the self-revelation of the character called Richard M. Nixon. Though inspired by and in many particulars based upon the original of that name (Coover must have read not only Six Crises but nearly every other public utterance of the ex-President), the created personality has an engaging vitality of its own, an almost Chaplinesque resourcefulness in recovering (with an hilarious attempt at dignity) from one pratfall before stumbling and pirouetting toward the next. He is an ineffable blend of priggery, self-abasement, shrewdness, pseudo-introspection, neediness, and determination. Coover, to his credit, avoids turning his Nixon into either a monster or a fool. He endows him with enough intelligence to assess, in a convincing, lawyer-like way, all the ambiguities in the historical case against the Rosenbergs. Some notion of the richness of the portrayal may be conveyed by the following excerpt:
What I couldn’t understand, though, was the Rosenbergs staying poor. Not that poor. Not in America. They didn’t even have a car or a TV. Hell, I was earning money by the time I was eleven years old, picking beans on farms and working in my Dad’s store…. Dad didn’t give me any abstract lessons in the American Way of Life, he simply turned over the vegetable shelves to me, let me fill them, keep them in order, and take the profits. I learned everything I needed to know about hard work…. I figured Julius Rosenberg had to be faking it…. They no doubt had a secret bank account somewhere—Poland probably, since that country had had the brass to offer them political asylum. There were people who said Julie was throwing money around like water toward the end—I think it was the FBI who said this—he was buying clothes, photographs, eating out at expensive restaurants. I wondered if I should take Pat out to an expensive restaurant on our anniversary. There was a good Mexican place on Connecticut I’d heard about. At one time, I’d been eager to take up Mexican food, because I had so many California constituents who ate the goddamn stuff, and I knew it was something you had to get in practice for…. I’d settle, as always, for a good well-done hamburger. And a pineapple malted. Or even a dish of cottage cheese. I eat a lot of cottage cheese…. And one thing I do that makes it not too bad is put ketchup on it. I learned it from my grandmother.
My stomach growled. I loosened my belt a notch, belched emptily, ate an antacid. I’ve been at this too long, I thought. If I wasn’t careful, I’d make myself sick again. How did other people get where they were without having to work like this?
But again too much is given, and again Coover has to pile hyperbolic episode upon episode in an attempt to sustain the movement of his action toward apocalypse. It’s a fine idea to have Nixon fall secretly in love with his victim, Ethel Rosenberg—even to indulge in a masturbatory fantasy about her. But then to cap all this with a “real-life” sexual encounter between the two in the Death House at Sing Sing is wasteful, repetitive, and—in the Freudian sense—overdetermined.
The character of Uncle Sam represents Coover’s dubious tribute to the American past. He is a composite of all the ornery, boastful, loudmouth, brutal, and crafty rapscallions who figure in so much nineteenth-century American folklore and fiction. Though he is primarily Sam Slick, the Yankee peddler, Uncle Sam is also the bullroarer of the Old Southwest, a blood-brother of that prototypical cracker Sut Lovingood, a lowlife type from Life on the Mississippi who might well frequent the bars and brothels of Natchez-under-the-Hill, an eye-gouger, Bowie-knife fighter, and ringleader of countless lynch mobs, a cousin of the King and the Duke in Huckleberry Finn, and, like Pap Finn, mean as a snake. While he speaks the idiom of the rural braggart (“let us anny-mate and encourage each other—whoo-PEE!—and show the whole world that a Freeman, contendin’ for Liberty on his own ground, can out-run, out-dance, out-jump, chaw more tobacky and spit less, out-drink, out-holler, out-finagle and out-lick any yaller, brown, red, black, or white thing in the shape of human that’s ever set his onfortunate kickers on Yankee soil!”), his sentiments are those of every braying Fourth-of-July orator or chauvinistic journalist who has ever proclaimed America’s manifest destiny or the God-given rightness of the American Way of Life. In creating Uncle Sam, Coover again gives the impression of considerable erudition in the byways of American lore. Surprisingly, he is able to animate this cartoon figure, who leaps in and out of the action, a foulmouthed and amusing deus ex machina. But how tiresome and unrelenting that voice becomes in the long haul!
The Rosenbergs are less successfully realized. They are mainly observed from the outside, composed of snippets—often moving enough—from their letters, statements, and the biographical record. Their moments of dread and pathos also derive more from the record than from the engendering imagination of the author. Ethel remains an enigma, almost an artifact. She is, in the Death House encounter with Nixon, the ultimate object of sexual exploitation—though her role as the yearning, suffering victim is mitigated slightly when the reader afterward learns that she has contrived to write “I AM A SCAMP” on Nixon’s bare butt. The sexual encounter between the two is clearly meant to be shocking and, I suppose, would be, if its impact had not been sapped by Nixon’s on’s earlier (and very explicit) fantasy. Besides, the point of diminishing returns in sado-sexual titillation has been reached well before the climactic scenes in this cruelly long and repetitive novel.
Although in The Public Burning Robert Coover strikes out boldly in what seems to be a new direction for him, the book is in fact remarkably congruent with his earlier work. There is not only a recurrence of themes and attitudes but of specific scenes and images. The handling of character and the general tonality are also much the same. From The Origin of the Brunists on, Coover indulges a fondness for apocalyptic effects, especially when the apocalypse is accompanied by orgy. In The Public Burning, the massed humping and intertwining of bodies in Times Square when the lights go out closely parallels the more naturalistically rendered orgy-in-a-rainstorm that occurs when the fanatical members of the Brunist cult assemble on the Mount of Redemption to greet the end of the world.
In his second novel, The Universal Baseball Association, J. Henry Waugh, Prop. (1968), the baseball players, who have hitherto existed as figments of J. Henry Waugh’s obsessive imagination, suddenly emerge in the final chapter as participants in a ritualized Life-Death combat, full of sacrificial overtones; there are suggestions of orgy too as the female fans clutch at the crotches of the players and succeed in lowering the pants of one of them. The image of a bare-assed man humiliatingly exposed as he stumbles about with his pants or underpants tangled around his ankles recurs in several climactic scenes in Coover’s fiction. The most protracted of these exposures is that of Nixon in The Public Burning—a humiliation that Tricky Dick, with characteristic resourcefulness, turns into a political triumph of sorts; in the earlier works one finds not only the sacrificial ballplayer but also the episode in The Origin of the Brunists that involves the shaming of the tough coal miner, Vince Bonali, who is caught in flagrante delicto with the pathetic widow of a recently killed fellow miner. And less striking variations of this image show up in several places in the collection called Pricksongs and Descants (1969).
Whatever its private significance for Coover, the figure of the bare-assed, encumbered man is expressive of the emotional bias of his fiction. This I would describe as highly aggressive, directed toward domination in all its forms. But this macho stance carries with it, inevitably, a fascinated horror of masochistic subjugation, passivity, and shame, a horror so intense as to suggest a covert attraction.
Coover’s writing shares this affective tone with Mailer’s (cf. especially An American Dream and Why Are We in Vietnam?) and Pynchon’s (Gravity’s Rainbow); in such writing the relationships between characters (and even the conception of the characters) are shaped almost exclusively by the domination-subjugation pairing. There is seldom room for tenderness or even for fun except at someone’s expense. The atmosphere is perpetually heated, the emotional terrain either arid or scorched. Human flesh tends toward mechanization. Women, when they are not cast in the role of dominatrix, are largely presented as objects to be collected, used, and pushed around—or as receptacles for phallic thrusting. The penis is seen primarily as a rod, an aggressive weapon, with consequent overemphasis upon size; no one would ever guess from these authors that it could also be an organ with a highly sensitized surface, capable of meltingly pleasurable and voluptuous sensations. The buttocks (male as well as female) and anal intercourse, inevitably associated with abasement (“Kiss my ass,” “Up yours”), figure prominently in the overtly sexual content. Images of feces and decomposition abound, extending—at a not very great remove—to Mailer’s preoccupation with the most noisome aspects of cancer.
The impulse to dominate usually reduces the characters to agents of the author’s will, leaving them little autonomy to grow and develop in surprising ways. Hence the predilection for either stereotypes or cartoon figures. I cannot think of a complexly human character in any of Coover’s fiction with the exception of Richard M. Nixon, where the reliance upon a living model seems to have given the writer greater freedom and flexibility than usual. Along with the need to control character goes an equally strong need to control the reader’s response at every point, often by overwhelming him with detail. The reader is seldom granted room to walk around within these novels, to breathe freely, to contemplate the characters and their situations with leisurely interest or relaxed amusement.
Such a high component of aggressiveness often generates much energy, verbal and otherwise, and when this is harnessed to the right kind of subject, the results can be memorable. I think that Coover found such a subject in The Origin of the Brunists, which powerfully dramatizes the emergence of a weird religious cult from a mining disaster in a small American town. The novel is badly overcrowded and suffers from the tonal limitations described above, but Coover, working roughly within the confines of realism, sustains a mounting action that has interesting thematic reverberations; without resorting to cartoon but with a heavy reliance upon stereotype, he exposes the discordant elements in the American ethos more effectively here than in The Public Burning—despite the flashiness and the more openly satirical nature of the later novel.
The Universal Baseball Association (etc.) came as a disappointment after the notable beginning of Coover’s career. In creating an obsessive main character, Coover surrenders to an obsessiveness of his own in the minute recounting of every inning and every play, as well as the history of every player that populates the maddened brain of J. Henry Waugh. Total control is maintained. All the air has been pumped out. Numerology, coincidence occult systems, and other quasi-paranoiac matter (usually less manifest in Coover’s fiction than in Pynchon’s—but always latent) take over. It is the most painfully claustrophobic novel I have ever experienced, and I doubt that even the most single-minded baseball freak could find it endurable. Having read the book, one cannot easily put it out of mind. It lingers like a certain kind of nightmare. Undeniably, a power of sorts has been exerted.
If The Universal Baseball Association suggests a contraction of Coover’s talents, Pricksongs and Descants represents their trivialization. The book is a collection of pretentiously skewed fairy tales, pseudo fables, and cutely surreal “fictions,” probably inspired by Barthelme and the Latin Americans. Most of them are empty show-off exercises, calling constant attention to the arbitrary manipulations of there author. Spiky with phallicism and fashionably manured with the imagery of decay, they form a collection that only the most inveterate defenders of Experiment are likely to admire.
Happily, The Public Burning reveals an unmistakable resurgence of Coover’s strengths. Despite the narrowness of his emotional range, he is a clever, passionate, inventive, and clearly ambitious writer. What an outrageous and triumphant performance his new novel might give if only it could be disentangled from the excesses and miscalculations that hobble its course like a pair of dropped pants.