The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The one character readers see most closely is Richard Nixon, presented through a continuing internal monologue that shows him at his worst and at his best. Throughout the book, he displays a single-minded pursuit of the presidency and a morbid concern with how he is being perceived. In a revealing moment, he muses on the fact that both he and Eisenhower had wanted to be railroad engineers when they were children, but he had done so merely because he knew that America considered such an ambition praiseworthy, while Eisenhower would actually have been willing to waste his life in such an unprestigious job. He is both fascinated and repelled by sex, and he is unwilling to face his feelings about the matter.

Yet for all these skillfully presented flaws, the book’s Nixon is by no means an entirely unpleasant figure. He is, within his limits, a person who cares about his family and generally wants to do good as he perceives it, so long as it will not interfere with his ambitions. His desperate efforts to understand his situation give the reader a certain sympathy for him. Coover skillfully weaves into the narrative actual writings of Nixon’s, from the explanations of public events Nixon included in his autobiographical Six Crises (1962) to a letter he wrote to his mother when he was a child in which he took on the persona of a long-suffering dog.

Uncle Sam is presented as mythical, if not actually godlike. Like a trickster god, he...

(The entire section is 417 words.)

The Public Burning Characters

Because of its mass and its scope, the novel has a predictably large cast of characters. These can be broken down into three classes:...

(The entire section is 1001 words.)