Reflecting on a photo taken on the day in 1974 that Richard Nixon left the White House after resigning the presidency, Ann Beattie writes, "My eyes and my curiosity riveted themselves to Mrs. Nixon at her husband's side. I had accepted her as relatively unimportant; she was the antithesis of a role model; sure, I felt sorry for her, but wait a minute: who was she?"
That second sentence's swerving punctuation and skid to a stop on a question mark lay out the unlikely route of Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life. Beattie's new book of not quite fiction, not quite fact circles Pat Nixon, first lady from 1969 to 1974 and among the most reluctant and private of presidential wives.
Mrs. Nixon is not a biography or a novel, although it gestures toward both. Much of it is a study of how fiction writers create characters, whatever degree of basis those characters might have in reality.
Beattie was born in 1947, part of the boomer generation that shook a collective fist at Richard Nixon. But this book isn't about politics either, except obliquely, and Beattie mostly keeps her gaze from slanting off in Nixon's direction, even though he was just the kind of mass of contradictions many novelists love to write about.
And there's a sticking point. Nixon is so well documented he'd be tough to fictionalize, and so oversized a persona (by his own design) that it might, paradoxically, be difficult to turn him into a believable character.
Those qualities haven't stopped throngs of authors from writing fiction about, say, Ernest Hemingway (seems like at least a dozen this year). But Beattie's characters always have been subtle, often difficult to read and quietly surprising, and so it makes sense she is drawn to Pat Nixon: "For me, Mrs. Nixon became a minor character who would not keep quiet. She was so often silent (the Checkers speech; her final exit from the White House) that it's tempting to think she had little to say. Writers tend to love people who volunteer very little, for their silence frees the writers to project onto them. ..."
Mrs. Nixon died in 1993, but Beattie did extensive research to write this book, and she found that her subject in a sense created herself as a character. Born Thelma Ryan in 1912, she grew up on a farm outside Los Angeles. When she was 12, her mother died, leaving her to run the house for her two brothers and her father, who died five years later. Orphaned Thelma adopted the first name Pat, a childhood nickname (she was born the day before St. Patrick's Day), and put herself through college in the depths of the Depression with many jobs, including work as an extra on movies.
While teaching high school in Whittier, Calif., she met Nixon, fresh out of law school, when both were cast in a play. Beattie touches on their unorthodox courtship — embedding a real letter Nixon wrote to her in a short story "in the manner of F. Scott Fitzgerald" — but focuses on young Pat's expressed desire for freedom and the abrupt end to that pursuit brought about by her marriage to the ambitious Nixon.
Among Beattie's signature fictional subjects are feminism and the nature of marriage, and Mrs. Nixon serves as a kind of counterpoint to her usual quirky, independent female characters. At least going by appearances, she was the most traditional kind of political wife, always conservatively dressed and perfectly coiffed and, as noted, often silent. One of the book's funnier short fictions imagines her baking cookies with Hillary Clinton, and it's hard to conjure a more antithetical pair of first ladies (although Beattie's version is not what you might expect).
Many of the book's fictional chapters imagine Mrs. Nixon's thoughts and reactions in real situations, such as the day the Nixons left the White House. Beattie riffs on an actual photo taken by official White House photographer Oliver Atkins at Nixon's behest, as if a snap of a teary-eyed family surrounding a disgraced husband and father maniacally grinning right at the camera was something everyone wanted in their scrapbook. "Mrs. Nixon looks animated, turned to the side. ... Mrs. Nixon looks like she's already out of there," she writes.
Just as often, Beattie approaches her subject by looking at fiction writing, and not just her own. Noting that during their courtship Pat gave Nixon two books, one by Karl Marx and one by Guy de Maupassant, Beattie uses de Maupassant's The Necklace as a way to discuss character.
Another chapter focuses on Chekhov, with this wonderful comment: "Chekhov seems to write very directly, though his stories don't hit you over the head with a log; instead, they're more like persuading the reader to go gather wood." She cites Fitzgerald and Hemingway, Raymond Carver and Tennessee Williams, not to mention fiction as film, ranging from Becky Sharp (in which young Pat Ryan had a bit part) to Rashomon.
Mrs. Nixon is not exactly a short course on writing fiction, although Beattie's professorial tone (she is on the University of Virginia faculty) occasionally comes through. It is more a meditation on the writer's life and art, sometimes a droll one, as when she provides a list of "truths about writers, rarely discussed," such as "Writers wear atrocious clothes when writing. So terrible that I have been asked by the UPS man, 'Are you all right?' "
And sometimes that meditation gives us a glimpse inside the writer's deepest relation to her work and characters, and how mysteriously they are linked. Beattie describes one of her students who clearly has no idea who Pat Nixon was, and her own mother's comment on her choice of subject: "Are you kidding?"
Yet she chooses Mrs. Nixon, that "antithesis of a role model," and asks, "Is what you're reading fiction or nonfiction? Or is it my memoir, which appears — like certain weeds, I can't resist saying — only in the cracks?"
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435.