The Public Burning (1976)

By Robert Coover

In the opening pages of Robert Coover’s The Public Burning, the narrator, Vice President Richard Nixon, insecure about his notoriously sinister jowls, thinks to himself, “isn’t that a hell of a thing—that the fate of a great country can depend on camera angles?” Set during the days immediately preceding the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Coover’s satire explodes the absurd ties that bind infotainment to politics, words to history, and images to morality. Nixon makes a suitable and surprisingly sympathetic anti-hero, then, for he was perhaps America’s first politician to be publicly made, broken, reborn, then destroyed, each act broadcast live on television. Coover assumes our familiarity with those images and puts them to effective use, deliberately sounding echoes of Nixon’s “I am not a crook” Watergate days while revisiting the glorious victory of his “Checkers” speech. Nixon is simultaneously the candidate on stage, sweat-soaked and scruffy beside Kennedy’s sheen, and the President-elect with arms raised, victorious, finally, in ’68.

“In statesmanship get the formalities right, never mind the moralities—why did I keep forgetting that?” The fictional Nixon’s question is at the heart of Coover’s satire, and the heydays of the McCarthy Era give him ample fodder. It’s as if Coover is attempting to embody all of the complicated contradictions of the ’50s in a single novel, often to hilarious affect. Betty Crocker comes to life as the personification of idealized Eisenhower-era domesticity. Hollywood horror creatures walk the streets in 3D Technicolor, living projections of xenophobic hysteria. Walt Disney and Cecille B. DeMille elbow each other aside in their fight for marketing rights to the execution. Eisenhower morphs into Gary Cooper, strutting toward a potentially apocalyptic showdown at High Noon while uttering the lyric verse of Time Magazine (the nation’s Poet Laureate). And, most prominently, the irrational demands of the American populace become a walking, talking, cursing, spitting caricature in the person of Uncle Sam, who wants only to defeat his nebulous arch-villain, The Phantom, an enemy that most closely resembles communism, but is actually anything that might be labeled “un-American,” a loaded term, no doubt, in the early-’50s.

Knowing something of The Public Burning‘s infamous reputation, I picked it up expecting to read a didactic denouncement of conservative hate-mongering built upon an equally didactic eulogy to the Rosenbergs, those most tragic and useable icons of the Old Left. What I got, instead, was something much more ambivalent and cynical: a satire with targets across the political spectrum. In an onanistic fantasy that would make Portnoy blush, Nixon attacks Ethel’s naïve devotion to an irrelevant idealism, voicing the questions that all on the Left have struggled to answer in post-WWII America: “What about Stalin’s purges? The death camps in Siberia? The massacres in Poland? What about Rudolph Slansky just last fall in Prague? Eh?” Her response is typical of the impotent liberalism that has characterized so much of the New Left. Coover captures this beautifully in an image of Julius and Ethel exchanging letters of praise for the Brooklyn Dodgers, a team that they root for despite their complete ignorance of baseball. Edith writes: “It is chiefly in their outstanding contribution to eradication of racial prejudice that they have covered themselves with glory.”

The warden at Sing-Sing offers an interesting insight into the Rosenbergs: “the problem has been their habit of behaving in what they probably think of as, well, symbolic ways—you know, acting like they’re establishing historical models or precedents or something.” There’s a strange irony to the line, given its context within a novel that, even in its title, treats their execution as a sacrificial rite. As with much postmodern fiction of the ’70s, that irony is often so thick here that it becomes difficult to find a foundation. Are the Rosenbergs heroic martyrs or treasonous dupes? Both, Coover seems to say, and neither. Left and Right, right and wrong all collapse into an absurd political/social/moral quagmire that is put on ridiculous display in the novel’s final pages. At the site of the execution—fantastically transposed from Sing Sing to the middle of Times Square—Nixon appears with his pants around his ankles, fully erect, then brings the crowd to a riotous frenzy as history dissolves around them. Abolitionists, comanches, and redcoats stand shoulder to shoulder with the members of the Supreme Court, who roll around in the piles of shit left there by the Republican elephant. Uncle Sam appears in a flash of light, then bends Nixon over, sodomizing him. “You’re not the same as when I was a boy,” is all the Vice President can muster in reply. It ain’t a pretty scene, but neither is America, Coover screams.