The Public Burning
by Robert Coover
Viking, 534 pp., $12.95
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 …