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The Public Burning (Coover, Robert) Paperback – April 2, 1998
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For quite some time after the 1977 publication of The Public Burning, it was almost impossible to find a copy. The book's own publisher seemed--no, was reluctant to admit it even existed. That's because this imaginative reconstruction of the 1953 execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, convicted for giving atom bomb secrets to the Soviets, was the first major work of modern fiction to feature a still-living historical figure as a prominent character. The book's obscurity was the publisher's attempt to avoid legal repercussions from Richard Nixon, who over the course of the book engages in a romantic interlude with Ethel Rosenberg and graphically surrenders himself to a rapacious Uncle Sam.
Now that Nixon's dead, however, readers are free to marvel at one of the few American novels to rival Joyce's Ulysses for sustained stylistic inventiveness. Snippets of speeches and articles from Time are recast in poetic form, entire scenes are presented in dramatic verse, as events in the Rosenberg case move towards their historically destined conclusion. --Ron Hogan
From the Back Cover
A controversial best-seller in 1977, The Public Burning has since emerged as one of the most influential novels of our time. The first major work of contemporary fiction ever to use living historical figures as characters, the novel reimagines the three fateful days in 1953 that culminated with the execution of alleged atomic spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Vice-President Richard Nixon - the voraciously ambitious bad boy of the Eisenhower regime - is the dominant narrator in an enormous cast that includes Betty Crocker, Joe McCarthy, the Marx Brothers, Walter Winchell, Uncle Sam, his adversary The Phantom, and Time magazine incarnated as the National Poet Laureate. All of these and thousands more converge in Times Square for the carnivalesque auto-da-fe at which the Rosenbergs are put to death. And not a person present escapes implication in Cold War America's ruthless "public burning".
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His portrayal of Nixon is very complex and uncanny as other reviewers have noted. He really gets under Nixon's skin and brings out the full greediness and soullessness of that man but he does it in a way that still presents Nixon as a fully fleshed out human being.
I won't spoil it but the ending is pretty shocking and again I haven't read anything that bold...ever. The only other place with that kind of brash type humor would be South Park or maybe Family Guy...but The Public Burning is on a whole other level of writing so do yourself a favor and strap yourself in for one wild and totally unique ride.
J. Edgar Hoover was obsessed with his own power, still believing that any Russian villain is better than none. President Eisenhower could be closest to form, a military tool turned into smiling cow-town golf-politics. At one point, Nixon says that a man who could smile so broadly could not be but so intelligent. Nixon is an engaging narrator, but not the one I could have envisioned. Coover creates from whole cloth a personable, vulnerable, doubtful boy from Whittier and Duke who alternates between charming, rarely, reflections on humble California beginnings and embarrassing feelings about Pat, media circuses, senior senators, Ethel Rosenberg, and the Supreme Court’s waffling. Uncle Sam’s portrayal is over the top un-American, pardonable only for Coover’s amazing gift for folksy and savvy dialogue.
What this book brings to light is the comedy of errors that became of the Supreme Court’s version of Twelve Angry Men, with Justice William O. Douglas playing the part of Henry Fonda. Julius Rosenberg receives some original sympathy from Douglas and, privately, Nixon. When Ethel becomes the focus, Nixon waxes exceptionally sympathetic. On page 316: “ – I run toward her: ‘Ethel! Look out!’ She looks up – but too late, the spray hits her full in the face and down she goes, kicking against the current, the jet blasts up her skirt … I throw myself in front of her, absorbing the brunt of the spray.” When he tells her to run for it, she won’t leave without him. Other key passages center around the Times Square celebration, the fact the FBI didn’t have its own electric chair, moving the electrocution up a few hours to respect the Jewish Sabbath, and Ethel’s slow, tormented death, reminiscent of the burning flesh scene in The Green Mile.
I’ve been fighting with my subconscious about this book, not about the Rosenberg’s flimsy conviction at the time or about the death penalty, but about the importance of politics. I was closely on every word with some perhaps misguided belief that politics was once more interesting than it is now. Richard Nixon would make some of the most notable presidential headlines, but as a 40 year old cutting his teeth on the ferocity of a witch-hunt that actually mattered much more than Iraq and the more recent Washington cowboys that can be lampooned, it seems fitting that everybody listed in the relentless name-dropping lists should have been present on that Friday night in June. Without question, this is some of the most articulate gibberish to ever be fashioned into a novel. 4.5 stars rounds up to 5.
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The story, if there really is one, concerns the Rosenbergs- spies!Read more