NixonCarver

David Bowman reviews 'NixonCarver' by Mark Maxwell


Richard Nixon (As Told To David Bowman)
February 25, 1998 1:00AM (UTC)

Year after year I appear in more books than any damn Kennedy does, but nobody'll ever write a book about my mother. And my mother was a saint. I guess all of you would say this about your mothers. Probably Mark Maxwell would say it about his. My mom makes an appearance in Maxwell's first novel, but her saintliness escaped him. Even that [expletive deleted] Oliver Stone portrayed my mother as a saint, while Maxwell depicts her as a drab Quaker.

But I forgive him. How can a son do that? Easy -- I'm a member of the transfigured dead. But I still read books. I'm not educated, but I do read first novels. And I appear in Maxwell's. The story begins after the resignation, when I meet Raymond Carver on the beach. We hit it off. We hang out. Play cards. Bullshit about the old days -- spilling our personal histories with Carveresque white trash translucence.

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Does anyone besides Maxwell still revere Carver? Fifteen years ago every American was writing like him. Hell, even a Democratic minimalist could write a good scene using that simp sentence style. But at the last page, what did you have? Nothing. Big zero. Because Carver's imitators could never imitate his transcendence. Take Carver's best story, the one about a mother who orders a birthday cake for her son, but never picks it up, so the baker terrorizes her with anonymous phone calls until she tells him that her boy was run down by a car. Carver imitators always end their stories on this note of sour irony. But Ray's baker offers the mother a loaf of fresh bread. And they both eat.

Which end would Maxwell choose -- irony or Carver's promise of redemption? Picture Maxwell reading these words at this very moment. He probably thinks I'm about to "Dick" him with a bad review. He's probably thinking the way all of us do when things don't go the right way. For example, when we don't pass the bar exam the first time, we think it's all over. (I happened to pass, but I was just lucky. I mean, my writing was so poor the bar examiner said, "We just got to let the guy through.") We think, as T.R. said (that's Theodore Roosevelt), that the light has left our life forever.

Not true. Not true, young Maxwell. I'm not giving your book the bum's rush. I think you wrote a swell, heartfelt novel (despite what you say about my mother). Your Nixon is not my Nixon, but Nixoness is big enough for a hundred different writers. And many times you're right on the money. Every time I reread your line where my brother tells me, "You've been getting ready for the Second Coming since the day you were born," I want to hand you a hundred dollars.

As for Raymond Carver, the other day I watched him out behind the pearly gates. He's not a guy I would pal around with. Someone who interests me more is Ho Chi Minh. Surprised? Ho was the only Red who stayed pure to his beliefs. Now Ho just makes cupcakes for the kids and angels (did you know he once studied pastry in Paris?). Ho is a baker worthy of Raymond Carver. And Maxwell too.

And this country needs good bakers. Just as it needs good first novelists. And -- may I say it -- good plumbers. Everyone must do his bit, because every job counts up to the hilt regardless of what happens. Mark Maxwell has done a splendid job on his first outing. I hope he sticks his neck out for his next one, too. But heaven help him if he ever again writes about my mother. Second novelists know that every man's mother is a saint.


Richard Nixon (As Told To David Bowman)

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