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Sunday, November 1, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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`A Nixon Man': One Child's Surreal Trip

Special To The Seattle Times

"A Nixon Man" by Michael Cahill St. Martin's Press, $22.95

It's quite an achievement to make a family seem both surreal and painfully familiar at the same time, but Michael Cahill manages this trick in his coming-of-age novel, "A Nixon Man," set in early 1970s San Francisco. The morning after Nixon's triumphant re-election, 11-year-old Jack Costello has to fight for a piece of toast with a monkey. He then gets down on all fours with the dogs. The family eats mush. His older sister inadvertently exposes a breast at the table. All of this in a staunch Republican household. What's going on here?

Explanations are not far away. The older sister is mentally impaired. Jack is on the floor to be closer to the heating duct, because his penny-pinching father keeps the thermostat too low. Mush is oatmeal. The monkey is, well, a family pet: a surreal element because each family is surreal in its own way.

Young Jack is our eyes and ears through all of this. He notices everything, from the fight his parents have at the edge of their morning conversation to the noisy way his father chews. "Like sloshing footsteps behind you in a dark wet alley," Jack remarks, "my father's mush-eating demanded to be heard."

For an 11-year-old, the world is a surreal place. "When I was growing up I thought we were always at war," he says, making Vietnam War-era America seem like something out of "1984." Hippies live next door, and one of them defecates in his father's convertible. His best friend's father, a former prosecutor, becomes a hermit.

But Jack is a tough kid, curious and mischievous, and he's always exploring. He skips school and conducts a midnight raid on his hippie neighbors. He even sends away for a Record-a-Jac, a primitive phone wiretap advertised in the back of Classics Illustrated comics, to find out exactly what secrets his father has been hiding.

Against a backdrop of the Watergate hearings, Jack discovers more than he intended to about his father, and about himself, and his life begins to parallel that of our 37th President: from triumph to ostracism and isolation. In this way he becomes as much a Nixon man as his father ever was.

The early '70s detail is choice. Jack and his best friend watch "Creature Feature" together. The first Skylab crew is mentioned and Jack adds, "There were no more Apollos." It gives us a sense of the dispirited times. No more Apollos meant no more gods, as the first astronauts seemed to young boys. The bland corporate entity Skylab, with its lack of purpose, takes their place. What was Skylab for, anyway? We still remember it because it fell back on us years later.

"A Nixon Man" is Cahill's first novel and inevitably contains miscues. Certain sentences seem as congested as Seattle traffic, such as: "Silvered glass sprinkled beside it crunched as I strayed over to investigate." More unforgivable is the sentimentality that creeps in toward the end. Jack is a reliable narrator because, to borrow a phrase from E.L. Doctorow, he is "a small criminal of perception": he notices everything, no matter how nasty, and reports back to us. The last 40 pages seem a cheat, an easy way out, but not enough to dismiss the first 200.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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