(I bought this a couple of months ago)
Originally published over a decade earlier in a slightly shorter form in American Review 22, Whatever Happened to Gloomy Gus of the Chicago Bears? is Coover's second long work to utilize Richard M. Nixon as a character, though much more subtlely than he did in The Public Burning. In Whatever Happened to Gloomy Gus of the Chicago Bears?, he is referred to as Gus in all but one or two instances, where somebody calls him Dick.
The novella is set in the lte 30's (with ending events occuring specifically on Memorial Day, 1937) in Chicago and the setting up of unions is heavily present. The story itself is told by Meyer, a Russian, Socialist, Jewish artist. Coover has him seemingly telling the story to one that would be familiar with himself, Gus and the other main players, giving the story a bit of a cozy feel for the reader. Meyer announces very early on that Gus has died, and then proceeds to tell the story that leads to this pivotal moment.
The writing in this novella is pretty straightforward compared to Coover's more metafictional efforts. There are a few things he seems to be concentrating on in these pages: history; showing some cracks in the "American Dream," and through his usage of Nixon as Gloomy Gus points to a certain hollowness in Nixon's character.
The book opens:
It's the Duke of Windsor's wedding day. $1300 worth of flowers have arrived at their French chateau to "festoon the nuptials," while back home in baltimore, we're told, Mrs. Simpson's house is being reopened as a shrine and museum. EDWARD BOSSES WALLY AROUND AND SHE LIKES IT. She's in fluted blue today with a bonnet of feathers and tulle. Elsewhere, another Soviet marshal is being shot, a young American is being guillotined in Fascist Germany for plotting against anti-Semites, a supposed has-been named Bill Dietrich pitched a no-hitter for the White Sox, and up in Wisconsin some guy dynamited his whole family just "because they wouldn't help around the farm."
Coover reminds us that history is not one view, one event per day--it's something seen from various angles and persepctives; nothing that is firm and set in stone. The combination of telling the story from the point of view of a Socialist, the usage of certain aspects of Richard M. Nixon's personality, and the struggles to get unions set up pokes holes in the idea of the "American Dream."
Richard M. Nixon was one that earned an early nickname of Iron Butt by using the stick-to-it nature of his personality to do welll in school, thrive in debates, and that sort of thing. Coover has Meyer start Gus' story back in college when he was not doing well in two areas of life (that is true per Nixon biographies)--football or with the ladies. Coover's Gloomy Gus decides to something very Nixonian, he's going to be an Iron Butt, but instead of practicing the type of things like Nixon practiced in real life (like smiling, sadly), he re-arranged his schedule, culling half an hour from his routine to concentrate first on football--starting off with learning how to avoid going offsides.
At first Gus did try to go it alone, using an alarm clock, but the ring was too much like the school bell, and it made him very jumpy in classrooms: he sometimes found himself out of his seat five minutes before the bell and down in a crouch in the front of the room, tense with expectation. So he got his brother to call numbers. Arbitrarily, they chose "29" as the signal to go. I asked the brother why and he said: "I don't know. The year maybe."
"You mean, because of the crash?"
"No, it was 1930, remember, and I think we thought that '29' would cause just that split second of delay that Dick needed. It was a mistake, though."
"Using just one number like that. We realized too late we should have mixed them up. He never quite got over it. You know what they say, the things you learn first stick with you the longest. Every time somebody shouted '29' after that, he was off and running."
The other problem was, he could only retain that which he continued to practice--if he tried to fit in 30 minutes a day on catching, he couldn't quit the 'offsides' practice or he'd be able to catch but start going offsides again. As he continued to find more aspects necessary to be practiced (such as laughing at the Coach's jokes, and towel snapping for the locker room), not to mention practicing all aspects of picking up women, his studies and debate practice time withered away. What it led to was a fantastic football player for a couple of yers, and a guy that scored with many a woman. However, it also led to:
"He was a little peculiar, Meyer, I know what you're talking about. Once we were hugging and I just squatted down a little so to sit on the bed, when he claps me hard on the tushie and says: 'Let's go git them fuckin' assholes!'--pardon the French, Meyer. And then he turns and runs--patsch!--right into the wall!
"He was breaking out of a huddle..."
As subtlely as Coover nudges readers into realizing that Gloomy Gus is Richard M. Nixon, he also makes sure through his story of Gus' life to make us understand that he didn't believe there was much substance to Nixon. That his "American Dream" wasn't/isn't one to follow--he pushed himself to be good at a few very specific, and selfish, aspects of life, yet it still led to an empty life.