Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Public Burning is a satirical and mythical heightening of America’s view of itself at a particularly dramatic time. Coover ransacks the entire history and folklore of the nation for images of Uncle Sam, personifying the nation’s flaws and its greatness. He also gives readers the American image of the communist Phantom as an utterly evil and destructive foe equipped, as America is, with that seemingly ultimate weapon, the atom bomb. In the official version of events, the Rosenbergs and others treacherously handed the bomb to an enemy that might not have had it for years without their assistance. The book, though, mentions that there were questions about whether the Rosenbergs were involved and whether the Soviets needed much help in completing a bomb.

The book is also about the process by which news is reported and becomes a part of history. Time magazine (referred to throughout as “the Poet Laureate of the United States”) and The New York Times are extensively quoted. Actual news reports, of everything from baseball scores to the death of a centenarian, are counterpointed against the central story, but these are mixed with invented comedy routines about the case. As with much of the book, the richness of detail adds greatly to the reading experience.

Nixon’s pursuit of the facts is a harrowing tale with many of the elements of a bad dream, from the taxi driver’s apparent changes of persona to Nixon’s own recurring inability to pull his pants up. It concludes with an ambiguous sexual encounter that brings him what he most wants and most fears, while his questions of what really happened are left unanswered. The reader likewise has been given a tale with a multitude of tellers, with no indication of whom to believe. In this work of fiction, readers are given no ultimately authoritative statement of what to believe, any more than they are when they read news or history.