3 really good new novels with unusual anti-heroes

It's tough to decide who is the hardest sell of the three heroes in this week's fiction round-up. There's a suicidal man who plans to kill himself and his dead brother's dog, a morbidly obese shut-in, and Richard Nixon. Even more difficult to believe? None of the novels are tragedies.

1.'Watergate,' by Thomas Mallon

Once Maggie Smith finishes imperiously dictating everyone's life at “Downton Abbey,” there's another acid-tongued arbiter of taste just waiting for her: Alice Longworth, Teddy Roosevelt's daughter.

In Thomas Mallon's densely intelligent new novel, Watergate, the octogenarian Longworth owns every scene she surveys, although she’s frankly not impressed by the quality of the current crop of courtiers.

In “Watergate,” Mallon throws out “All the President’s Men,” Deep Throat, and the familiar narrative of the break-in at the Democratic National Headquarters in favor of a shifting cast on the periphery of the bugging-gone-wrong. No one – not even the reader – has the complete picture.

As one character says, “What I don't know was always more than what I did.”

It’s an impressively difficult task Mallon sets himself, and, for the most part, he succeeds.

In addition to Longworth, the point of view shifts between Rose Mary Woods, Nixon's loyal secretary; Howard Hunt, former CIA agent turned thriller writer, and his wife, Dorothy; Elliot Richardson, ambitious appointee-of-all-trades; Fred LaRue, a near-sighted, soft-spoken Mississippian who seems far too gentle for the Nixon White House but who may have murdered his father in a bird-hunting accident 15 years earlier. (Perhaps Republican politicians should stick to skeet-shooting.) Mallon is especially sympathetic to Pat Nixon, for whom he dreams up an affair with a New York philanthropist (for which there is no historical evidence). In Mallon's hands, the women generally are savvier and more pragmatic than the men.

Pulitzer Prize-winners Bob Woodward and Carol Bernstein barely rate a mention as those “two Post Metro reporters.”

For those born during the Ford administration or after, “Watergate” can seem impenetrable without a refresher course on the scandal. Mallon doesn't go in for exposition or explanations. There isn't a single, “Well, as you know, Bob,” speech catching people up on the salient facts. I never did fully understand what happened to Vice President Spiro Agnew, who apparently was taken down by ordinary graft. (On the other hand, there are genuine surprises unavailable to those who remember, for example, which player dies in a plane accident.)

Presiding over the teeming mass of secrets is Nixon, whose “thin, ever-crawling skin” and desperate craving for admiration Mallon gives an almost Shakespearean quality. Except, as Longworth, who serves as the voice of acerbic reason, says: “[Watergate] is not a tragedy. It simply does not qualify as such.”

Nixon's desire to tape-record every presidential moment both is his undoing and suggests that the former president really would have enjoyed Facebook.

The dialogue is top-notch, and “Watergate” should appeal to baby boomers for whom the crisis remains a turning point in the country's move toward cynicism. Some of the fictional elements are less successful: Mallon's hypothesis for how 18-1/2 minutes of tape disappeared is plausible, but leaves a reader shrugging, while it seems highly unlikely the “savviest woman in the world” would have left a small fortune sitting in an airport locker.

Still, at the heart of the novel, remain two central questions, which Mallon lets Nixon ask for himself: “But what could [they] really know? And when could [they] have come to know it?”

'Heft,' by Liz Moore

A&E would have a field day with Arthur Opp. He hasn't left his house in 10 years and, by his own estimate, he weighs somewhere between 500 and 600 pounds.

“Despite this I am neither immobile or bedridden but I do feel winded when I walk more than six or seven steps, & I do feel very shy and sort of encased in something as if I were a cello or an expensive gun,” writes Arthur at the beginning of Liz Moore's delicately poignant novel Heft.

Eighteen years ago, Arthur was an English professor teaching a blue-collar student from Yonkers who, instead of analyzing texts, would use her papers to call Medea a bad mom, over and over again. Charlene Keller was out of style, even then, but rather than roll his eyes and make fun of her naivete, Arthur, who sees the beauty in unbeautiful people, is charmed.

He loses his job over their friendship – it barely qualifies as dating – and she drops out of school. The two keep in touch through letters, which remain Arthur's only contact with the outside world besides the delivery men who bring him his daily supplies.

Then, Charlene asks him to meet her teenage son, and Arthur has to tell the truth of what his life has become. As it turns out, Charlene hasn't been up front about a few things, too.

“Heft” moves between Arthur, who hires a cleaning lady to try to make the house passable for visitors, and Charlene's son, Kel Keller, a star baseball player who no longer quite fits in Yonkers, thanks to the upscale school his mom got him into. (He doesn't quite fit in there, either, but Kel has mastered the art of camouflage that eluded both Arthur and Charlene.) Charlene's biggest dream has always been for Kel to go to college. He can't imagine his mom surviving with him far away and wants to make a pile of money, now, so that he can take care of her and “force” her to get well.

To describe too much about the plot is to ruin “Heft,” but as time goes on, a worried Arthur takes the drastic step of calling. “You've reached the Kellers, his voice said. We can't take your call right now. You know what to do. I waited for the beep and then I hung up. Because I didn't.”

The psychology of how Arthur got to his present size may seem pat, and the fact that his last day outside was Sept., 11, 2001, made me sigh, but I was so busy hoping things would work out for Arthur and Kel that those flaws barely registered on first reading.

Moore doesn't shy away from Arthur's eating habits, which may put some readers off, but that would be a real shame. In her story of the agoraphobe and the athlete, she's created a novel whose gentle understanding creates a beauty that stays with you long after the book is done.

'The Lost Saints of Tennessee,' by Amy Franklin-Willis

Zeke Cooper’s life hasn’t turned out quite like how his ambitious mother had planned. Undone by twin disasters – divorce from his childhood sweetheart and the drowning death of his twin, Carter – the 42-year-old can’t see a future any more.

The big question, as he puts it, is: “[H]ow did the smart boy with a full scholarship to the University of Virginia end up living in a converted shed in his mother's backyard and working on the line at the Dover elevator plant?”

The Lost Saints of Tennessee, told mostly from Zeke’s viewpoint, with a few salient facts thrown in by his estranged mother, Lillian, looks at the Cooper family history from the 1940s to the 1980s and how things went so very wrong.

When the novel has opened, Zeke’s had enough: “My daily choices have evolved from whether to have chili or a Swanson's Hungry Man dinner to kicking around suicide methods.”

He can’t leave his brother’s elderly dog, Tucker, behind, so the two set out to Pigeon Forge, where Zeke’s suicide plan doesn’t quite come off as expected. From there, Zeke and Tucker head back to a relative’s farm in Virginia – the last place he can remember feeling hope.

“The Lost Saints” is a “Southern novel,” in terms of being filled with RC Cola, Moon pies, McDonald's drive-through, hummingbird cake, and the Piggly Wiggly. But any bright kid making it to middle age can easily relate to battered Zeke and his bafflement about what he’s supposed to do now.

Franklin-Willis tries too hard to create a happy ending for her worn-out hero, but she excels at making readers care about her characters, especially the ones who have made the biggest mistakes. And after all, it would be downright curmudgeonly to begrudge Zeke a little happiness.