Searchlight on the Lawn
A compassionate portrait of a controversial political figure
After ten books in twelve years, it’s safe to say that Auke Hulst is a prolific writer. His work has always had a cinematic quality: both Sleep Tight, Johnny Idaho (2015) and Brotherland (2017) read like dystopian road novels. In his new novel, he steps into the mind of one of the most unpopular presidents in American history. The result is remarkable.
Perhaps the most fascinating thing about Richard Nixon was his personality, particularly the darker sides of it. In three acts, the writer enters into the psyche of the former world leader: first during a sleepless night in the White House, then at the moment he loses the 1960 election to Kennedy, and finally on the day he has to publicly resign after the Watergate scandal for what he refers to as a ‘chicken shit burglary’.
Hulst offers us a glimpse into the aggrieved soul of a man from a poor background who managed to work his way up to the highest office in the country, but who was never really able to enjoy his own success. This was how he felt in 1960 at the beginning of his career: ‘He was angry about something that might not even happen. But it did happen. It had already happened, and it would keep on happening. He was regularly snubbed by the press, in debates, in the smallest matters of everyday life, and he was so often wronged, underestimated, misclassified and misunderstood. Hated.’
More than anything Hulst paints a convincing portrait of his character. Distrustful to the bone, Nixon was chronically suspicious of everyone around him – only his closest family would escape his hypersensitivity. Even his friend Kissinger, his ‘holy’ mother, Hannah, and his rival Kennedy, with whom he had a love-hate relationship, were all counted among his enemies at one point or another.
Auke Hulst shows a strong empathy for the former president and one of the most contentious figures in recent world history. Despite Nixon’s personality flaws, Hulst allows the reader to develop a kind of understanding and compassion for him as a person, as if he is the embodiment of the human condition. This controversial character, who is above all at war with himself, evokes paradoxical feelings in the reader – a mixture of aversion and empathy for a man convinced that he has to push his way into a world where he isn’t welcome. ‘The world wasn’t going to open the door for him, that he knew, so he would have to kick it down by force.’