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The Public Burning

really liked it 4.0  ·  Rating Details ·  853 Ratings  ·  69 Reviews
A controversial best-seller in 1977, The Public Burning has since emerged as one of the most influential novels of our time. The first major work of contemporary fiction ever to use living historical figures as characters, the novel reimagines the three fateful days in 1953 that culminated with the execution of alleged atomic spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Vice-Presiden ...more
Paperback, 544 pages
Published April 2nd 1998 by Grove Press (first published 1977)
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Aug 09, 2014 Hadrian rated it it was amazing
Shelves: american, fiction

Thieves of light to be burned by light—in the electric chair, for it is written that "any man who is dominated by demonic spirits to the extent that he gives voice to apostasy is to be subject to the judgement upon sorcerers and wizards.

The Public Burning is a mad carnival of 1950s Americana, a patriotic orgy of God-fearing Communist hunters, showmen, preachers, Presidents, criminals condemned to explode in an electric explosion of holy vengeance. Come one, come all. See their heads explode and
Ian Vinogradus
A Tale of Two Atrocities

"The Public Burning” is a fast and loose fictionalization of the three days leading up to the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg on the evening of Friday, June 19, 1953.

They were convicted of a charge of conspiracy to commit espionage, relating to passing information about the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union.

Neither directly stole the information, nor passed it on to a Soviet agent. If anything, they both had quite insignificant roles, compared to those who gave evid
February 2013

Book I Bought In 2007 And Hadn't Read Yet (As Of January 2013) #1: The Public Burning by Robert Coover

"Those who have cast their lot with me shall come to dominion! Those who have cast it with the Phantom shall get their ass stacked!"
-Uncle Sam
Mine eyes have seen the glory!

1953, June 17th, Wednesday: Eisenhower is Superchief, Richard Nixon his right-hand man, Time magazine the Poet Laureate. J. Edgar Hoover, Joe McCarthy, and Billy Graham, great Americans all, have worked tireles

Furious, scatological, enflamed, visionary, razor sharp, scabrous, detailed, lengthy, outraged, overindulgent, pioneering, vicious, vivacious, cynical, black humored, radical, cartoonish, incandescent, haunting

I can see why this book was banned but that's only for the reasons that testify to its power and vision.

This is a cultural link to South Park, The Simpsons, etc. Over the top satire that is just too dead-on to be neglected.

The problem is, its tragicomic vision of a charismatically rapaci
This is my first Robert Coover book and I enjoyed it from cover to cover. The story covers the three days leading up to the execution of "atomic spies" Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Coover alternates chapters between a fictional Richard Nixon and a fictional manifestation of Uncle Sam.

The Nixon chapters are told from Tricky Dick's perspective as he struggles with the daily challenges of his job as Ike's not-very-well-respected Vice President, his deteriorating home life, and his sweaty wrestling
This is an extraordinary novel, and contains some of the most sustained, inventive, furious satire I have ever read. So why only 4 stars? Well, while there are sections that would fully deserve the full-fathom-five, it was just too much rage to be sustained over a 500 page, tiny-type, novel. Writing in fury is hard, it has a tendency to take over the prose, and it can become a little baggy and unfocused as a result. Some judicious editing might have made this work better for me, though I cannot ...more
Robert Coover recently published The Brunist Day of Wrath, revisiting earlier territory in a highly anticipated (by hundreds at least) mammoth new novel. One of the thoughts I had reading The Public Burning was that Coover could have easily returned to The Public Burning by looking at a recent era in American history.

Imagine a novel where a Vice President named Dick, a cynical operator and foil to a relative political amateur from Texas, is seduced by the idea of becoming the living incarnation
Mar 29, 2011 Jonfaith rated it it was amazing
I read this as part of a Thomas Pynchon group on yahoo in the late 90s. Apparently I was the onlyone who braved this wicked ride. I recall calling my grandmother and verifying historical details.
Sep 15, 2013 Jeremy rated it it was amazing
Shelves: american-fiction
HOLY COW, this is a crazed, carnivalesque masterpiece. Coover brilliantly recreates the Rosenberg execution and the Red Scare of the early 50's, zooming in on both the major and minor players in the case with a level of exuberance and intense detail that usually only someone like Thomas Pynchon is capable of. And at the center of it all is then vice-president Richard Nixon, weirdly humanized but still impossibly self absorbed and self-pitying, his mind running at a paranoid, invective filled pac ...more
Jul 02, 2008 Erik rated it it was amazing
Five stars, no kidding, if I could give six or seven I would. This is a Great American Novel, in lurid stars and stripes and in gorgeous multilayered language and characters. The plot is the runup to an imagined execution of the Rosenbergs in a orgiastic death-fest in Times Square. Not all of the characters were familiar to me as the action is a little before my time. But you'll sure recognize the main ones, Uncle Sam, and Tricky Dick Nixon. Nixon is (as William Gass says in his introduction) pr ...more
Mientras Leo
Feb 01, 2016 Mientras Leo rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Cada vez lo tengo más claro. Hay que leer a Coover
Opinión completa
Mar 28, 2013 Geoff marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
This book, The Public Burning by Robert Coover, is but a month and 19 days younger than myself (that is, if we determine the life of a book to begin on its publication date, and not the day it is conceived, which, if we were to do, would complicate things greatly and unnecessarily). So we have lived our Earth's time basically concurrently, this book and I. We are coevals. Mr. Coover's baby may have grown up to be a man much similar to myself. I just purchased a 1st edition VG+ copy of The Public ...more
Nathan "N.R." Gaddis
May 07, 2016 Nathan "N.R." Gaddis rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: You!
Recommended to Nathan "N.R." by: Uncle Sam

This Review is on strike.

Something someday will be added to this Review Box. Meanwhile it is observing my peculiar tradition of not successfully reviewing my Bestest Books.....
Where to even begin? Even as Thomas Pynchon is a college-lit staple, even as David Foster Wallace is popular enough he can get played by Jason freakin' Segel, Coover has, it seems, fallen by the wayside. Which is a damn shame. Especially with a novel like The Public Burning.

And where to start with The Public Burning? This is postmodernism that gives you feels, man. Because Nixon is as pathetic and self-loathing as he is menacing, and you feel wretched for him. You wish he'd had more shoulders to
Oct 12, 2013 Traveller marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
This review says: Burn me down, Amazon, burn me down!

Nov 17, 2013 Phil rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
1. The best depiction of Nixon, ever. Complex, contradictory, introspective, sensitive, belligerent, approval-seeking, etc. A capital-p Politician with hidden humanity.

2. The best depiction of Uncle Sam, ever. The mythical superhero in the flesh, spouting off colloquial aphorisms, insights into politics, narrative, and power, mercurial, scheming, stupendous, and ultimately self-centered.

3. Hysterical and hyper-real. Galloping and grotesque.

4. Sometimes a bit too satisfied with itself. Lyricism
Jun 05, 2012 Melody rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
The Public Burning is a curious mix of fact and fiction whose characters include: Betty Crocker, Jack Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, the Marx Brothers, Mamie and Ike Eisenhower, Billy Graham, and starring Dick Nixon, Uncle Sam, The Phantom and Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. The story of America’s extreme fear of communism during the 50s and the execution of the Rosenberg’s (the only American civilians to be put to death for espionage) is told primarily through Vice President Nixon, (who is depicted to be ...more
Apr 22, 2008 Nathanael rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: satire lovers, history buffs
Recommended to Nathanael by: Tom LeClair
A sizzling indictment of whatever hysteric sinister swirling form America chose to take that could put to death Julius and Ethel Rosenberg with little to no evidence and an abundance of doubt as to their guilt. This is the first novel of Coover I've read and it's a doozy. Not a difficult read, but the satire is lapped on and layered over like a dog aggressively licking your sleeping face. This is similar to what Hess says in the introduction, but I think its apt, that although the novel is a fan ...more
Vit Babenco
Dec 25, 2014 Vit Babenco rated it it was amazing
“His clumsiness, I thought, is part of his disguise, part of his armor, a kind of self-defense mechanism—he seems most sincere just when he makes the least sense.”
That’s Ike Eisenhower.
“Let the best man win so long as it’s me… I wanted it to be played with rhetoric and industry, yet down deep I knew that even at its most trivial, politics flirted with murder and mayhem, theft and cannibalism.”
That’s Dick Nixon.
“He parades through like a peacock, sporting all his medals, and jabbing his stubby fi
Feb 14, 2008 Tom rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: anyone who can read.
Astonishing, one of the most amazing novels you'll ever come across. A grand mad fantasia on American themes, centering on Richard Nixon and the repercussions of the Rosenberg trial. Don't worry, this is no dry historical novel. Uncle Sam features prominently as the Superhero to end them all, complete with his own arch-nemesis: the Phantom, standing in for the Red Menace. A dazzling read.
Mariano Hortal
Publicado en

La hoguera pública de Robert Coover. La corrupción del sueño americano

Intentando escribir algo sobre una obra como esta, recordé un texto que escribí hace tiempo sobre La abadesa de Crewe de Muriel Spark; en aquel post enlazaba lo que nos contaba la británica con otro texto de características parecidas como era Nuestra Pandilla de Philip Roth. Ambas obras tienen como protagonista de fondo a Richard Nixon, Tricky Nixon, como lo llama Roth en su
Oct 14, 2014 Max rated it liked it
Shelves: postmodern
For those with an interest in the Rosenberg trials, Richard Nixon, McCarthyism, and the entire 1953 milieu, The Public Burning provides a wild and entertaining view of what might otherwise be a dry subject. Coover’s fictional Nixon is fascinating with Nixon’s reflections on himself as the pragmatic political workman misunderstood by an aloof Eisenhower who both uses and looks askance at him.

Some knowledge of this period is required to get the most from the book. Every celebrity and well-known f
Jul 12, 2015 Cynthia rated it it was amazing
Where to begin? A high-wire act written with stylistic precision and variety? One of the first attempts in serious fiction to utilize a still-living figure? Still fresh 36 years after publication?

It's the first year of the new Eisenhower Administration. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg are due to be executed amidst a public spectacle in Times Square (they were electrocuted at Sing Sing). Then there's Veep Richard Nixon who keeps having fantasies about Ethel and carries on an interior monologue through
Dec 27, 2012 Charlie rated it really liked it
The narrative structure of The Public Burning is Robert Coover's strange look at the days leading up to to the partly fictionalized execution of the Rosenbergs for espionage. While Coover's satire and the literal characterization of American madness (& stupidity) gets a wee bit tiresome as the story pushes on (and on, and on) the real marvel of the book is the bizarre humanisation of Richard Nixon. More damning than any long-nosed beady-eyed caricature , Coover transforms Nixon's reptillian ...more
Feb 05, 2011 Michael rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: slipstream
I hadn't expected this to be as engrossing as it turned out to be. It's like a cross-pollination of Watchmen and Genesis's "Broadway Melody of 1974". Having no knowledge of the book's publication history, I thought it was just a satire of the Rosenberg executions. Oh no, Nixon gets screwed. Ha. Oily and dark. Even if you don't have a solid understanding of 1950s American politics, you can absorb everything by osmosis. It's a very dense novel, so be prepared to chip away at it for a while.
Alexander Weber
Well holy shit! The last 100 pages of this book REALLY take off! I sort of felt, for the first few hundred pages, that this was more of a 3/5 kind of book. The premise and idea behind it are all 5/5... but the writing and the actual content just wasn't grabbing me. Then... then Nixon visits Ethel in prison, and things really take off. Or maybe it was a little bit before that... regardless, the last 100 pages are 100% phenomenal writing and content. WOW.

Also, it's pretty pathetic how much of this
Martin Zook
Feb 26, 2015 Martin Zook rated it it was amazing
Shelves: amlit
Remember when British reporter David Frost asked former President Nixon what his greatest error was during the Watergate crisis?

With a straight face, Nixon hemmed and hawed: "I was too nice a guy."

Therein lies Tricky Dick's capacity to delude himself that Robert Coover recognizes so brilliantly. Throughout The Public Burning, a sendup of Nixon and America of extraordinary magnitude, Nixon opines on the big questions facing him, the Eisenhower administration, and the country; but unwaveringly com
Aug 02, 2013 Arman rated it really liked it
It's more like 3.5 or something. Everything about the layouts of the novel is great, having dick nixon as the narrator, uncle sam as a superhero in comicbookish struggle with phantom, his arch enemy, anger and satire propelling the whole thing etc etc. so in its embryonic face, public burning is reaching towards high heavens. But the thing is as you're reading it those wonderful potentials never seem to get out of their shells. Try to summarize the whole thing and it would seem like a horrendous ...more
Aug 07, 2011 Ron rated it it was ok
SPOILER ALERT: Coover takes on an epic story from the annals of recent history--the Rosenberg executions--and has written a dense and nearly impenetrable and exceedingly boring novel about a fascinating and polarizing topic. The only positive was that he got inside of the head of Richard Nixon as a character and in the final scene had him sodomized by the embodied presence of all the past presidents. I'd heard there was a monumental ending and stuck with it for that, hence a star for the Nixon c ...more
Apr 10, 2015 Paul rated it liked it
Robert Coover is not a man to heed the maxim "brevity is the soul of wit." He piles obscenity upon absurdity upon improbability in this mid-length but brick-dense satirical 1977 novel about the days immediately preceding the executions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. But he never amuses, disgusts or scares me as much as he wants, since this novel's extended unreality is heightened by an almost childlike symmetry -- the chapters alter between a first-person narrative of a comic but semi-recognizab ...more
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Born Robert Lowell Coover in Charles City, Iowa, Coover moved with his family early in his life to Herrin, Illinois, where his father was the managing editor for the Herrin Daily Journal. Emulating his father, Coover edited and wrote for various school newspapers under the nom-de-plume “Scoop.” He was also his high-school class president, a school band member, and an enthusiastic supporter of the ...more
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“Oh, he shouldn't be surprised, he's a Marxist and has nothing but contempt for the bourgeois capitalist press, yet paradoxically he is also somehow an Americanist and a believer in Science and Freedom and History and Reason, and it dismays him to see cruelty politely concealed in data, madness taken for granted and even honored, truth buried away and rotting in all that ex cathedra trivia--my God! something terrible is about to happen, and they have time to editorialize on mustaches, advertise pink cigarettes for weddings, and report on a lost parakeet! Ah, sometimes he just wants to ram the goddamn thing with his head in an all-out frontal attack, wants to destroy all this so-called history so that history can start again.” 3 likes
“Strange, the impact of History, the grip it had on us, yet it was nothing but words. Accidental accretions for the most part, leaving most of the story out. We have not yet begun to explore the true power of the Word, I thought. What if we broke all the rules, played games with the evidence, manipulated language itself, made History a partisan ally? Of course, the Phantom was already onto this, wasn't he? Ahead of us again. What were his dialectical machinations if not the dissolution of the natural limits of language, the conscious invention of a space, a spooky artificial no-man's land, between logical alternatives. I loved to debate both sides of any issue, but thinking about that strange space in between made me sweat. Paradox was one thing I hated more than psychiatrists and lady journalists.” 1 likes
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