I sometimes wonder if I am the only person in Britain who reads Thomas Mallon’s fiction. (I sometime wonder if I am the only person in Britain who has even heard of Thomas Mallon.) Yet, for me, Mallon is one of the best of America’s historical novelists. His work is very much in the tradition of Gore Vidal, with its concentration on American political history, and with a gay subtext that becomes more pronounced in his more recent works.
I first came across him in a secondhand book store in Madison, Wisconsin, when I found four paperbacks each of which touched on areas of particular interest to me. Aurora 7 is a kaleidoscopic novel set on the day that Alan Shepherd became the first American in space. Henry and Clara is a tragedy concerning the two people who accompanied President and Mrs Lincoln to Ford’s Theater on the day of the assassination; Henry was wounded at the time and subsequently went mad, Clara, who had gone against the wishes of her Senator father in becoming engaged to Henry, consequently had a very hard life. Two Moons, my favourite of these early novels, is a wonderfully engaging melange of astronomy, politics and romance set in post-Civil War Washington. At its heart is the relationship between an official at the US Naval Observatory and a Civil War widow who is one of the most gifted of his human “computers”; but around this pair we see an awful lot of the politicking, the duplicity, the scientific knowledge and the social reality of life in the capital at the very end of Grant’s presidency. And then there was Dewey Defeats Truman, which takes for its title the famous and mistaken newspaper headline from the 1948 presidential election. The story concerns a romantic triangle involving a young woman who works in a bookstore and who votes Democrat, and two men, one non-political and the other a would-be Republican State Senator, all set in Dewey’s home town on the eve of the election. I thought then it was a wonderful dissection of American politics at the time, I now see it was laying the groundwork for something bigger.
Anyway, I loved these novels so much (particularly their variety) that I decided to keep an eye out for everything by Mallon. I even sought out his first novel, Arts and Sciences, a campus comedy that really isn’t very good. I’d say much the same about his later jazz age novel, Bandbox; I think Mallon is weakest when he is consciously trying for a light touch.
Then he began a series of novels centred around key moments in post-war Republican politics, and it was like his work stepped up a gear. The central characters of these are all real historical figures, recreated in a way that is totally convincing, though there are always a few fictional characters so that he can dramatise key moments away from the spotlight. The first of these novels, Fellow Travelers, dealt with the McCarthy hearings and was excellent at capturing the paranoia running through the back offices of the Senate building, where everyone had secrets they felt were about to be exposed. The second was Watergate, and it became clear that we were in what might be called the Nixon Trilogy, since he was a central player in the McCarthy events, and of course was now President. Although the novel starts with the break-in, it quickly settled into a landscape of expensive hotel rooms, luxury homes, and meeting rooms away from the public eye. The novel follows the public events of the Watergate scandal, from the break-in to the resignation, but its central concern is how more peripheral politicians are trying to use the ever-changing sequence of events for their own advancement or even survival.
Now comes Finale: A Novel of the Reagan Years, though the title is somewhat misleading as virtually the whole of the book is set during the second half of 1986, a six month period that saw the failure of the Reykjavik summit and the eruption of the Iran-Contra scandal. Nixon here is in internal exile, but still taking an active interest in affairs, bombarding the Reagan administration with suggestions and observations, and keeping a close eye on things through the agency of a minor NSC official, here represented by the (fictional) Anders Little. Little’s life, meanwhile, is becoming further complicated by the fact that he is becoming engaged in a gay affair, just at the point that the AIDS epidemic is getting into full swing. If we are to read these books as the Nixon trilogy, then this is indeed the finale, since Nixon himself is dead before the novel’s epilogue; but we also see them as part of a bigger picture, since Peter Cox and Anne Macmurray, the pair at the heart of Dewey Defeats Truman, here in old age are important secondary figures in the story; Anne is an anti-nuclear campaigner who befriends Little, Cox is a former state senator who gets embroiled in the funding muddle that surrounds the Iran-Contra Affair. Another major figure in the novel is Christopher Hitchens, a long-time friend of Mallon, who in the story has newly arrived in America and is working on an article about Democrat fund-raiser Pamela Harriman. Through this, he meets Little and Macmurray, covers the Reykjavik summit, and begins to unravel part of the money trail of Iran-Contra; more importantly, he serves as an acerbic, waspish chorus figure.
But the heart of the novel is Ronald Reagan himself, the great communicator, the great enigma. At one point, Mallon has the Icelandic President comment that she doesn’t know if he is superficially deep, or deeply superficial. Of course, Reagan is never a viewpoint character, because he has no character, nobody knows who he is; instead, Mallon cleverly chooses Nancy Reagan as his viewpoint close to the President. Throughout the novel, she is presented as the only person who has any insight whatsoever into the mind of the President, until, in a quite devastating climax, she realises that even she doesn’t know him. Along the way she is presented as a manipulative, spiteful, failing and flailing person, desperately trying to shore up her husband’s administration while her husband himself remains oblivious to everything. He talks only in anecdotes about his movie past; tellingly, whenever his aides want to fix anything in his mind, they show it to him on a film rather than in reality, he feels empathy for what he sees on a screen but is disconnected from anything that happens off screen. Nancy, meanwhile, surrounds herself with a coterie of friends from her Hollywood days, most notably Merv Griffin, whose response to anything is “woo, great.” It is, in other words, a novel about emptiness, and I don’t recall ever seeing it done so well.
The emptiness, of course, has real-world effects.The centrepiece of the book is the summit in Reykjavik, with Gorbachev practically begging Reagan to accept a deal that wll wipe out nuclear weapons within ten years. But Reagan remains oblivious, and is so wedded to his notion of the Strategic Defence Initiative (as Hitchens observes: what is strategic about defence?) that he allows the talks to fail. The hawks around him, including Nixon and Margaret Thatcher, are delighted, they feel he is being strong; but he really doesn’t understand what they are talking about. You get the impression that whenever anyone talks to Reagan, they hear only the echo of their own voice. Later, when his biographer asks about Reykjavik, all Reagan can talk about is the look of the house, and the sound of the grandfather clock.
In a final, brief, epilogue, set ten years after the events of the rest of the novel, we see Reagan alone with his Altzheimer’s Disease, unable to read, unable to remember, unable to make sense of anything around him. And we are left to wonder how different that it from the Reagan who was President.
Mallon, as I have said, is a very fine novelist of political history; but this, I think, may be his best book to date.