A Novel of the Reagan Years
By Thomas Mallon
Pantheon. 480 pp. $27.95
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nolead ends Thomas Mallon's Finale depicts the chaotic-yet-consequential Reagan administration, with countless characters - real and fictional - linked in some way with it. The novel is another installment in Mallon's chronicle spanning American history from Lincoln to Watergate. If the excellence of his 1994 novel, Henry and Clara, in which he renders the tragedy in the presidential box at Ford's Theater, has not been matched by his subsequent fiction, Finale comes close.
Appearing in the prologue is Richard Nixon, unscathed by his past trauma and now jockeying to become "a back channel . . . a crucial, occasional, out-of-sight envoy to Moscow and Beijing." To this end, Nixon uses a 38-year-old man named Anders Little, the most significant of the book's fictional persons. Anders holds a high-level job with the National Security Council (NSC).
Vividly chronicled are Nancy Reagan's well-known reliance on her astrologist and her simplistic "Just Say No" antidrug campaign. So is her ardent desire for her husband to have a legacy as an international peacemaker. At one point, Mallon softens his characteristic nastiness and notes Nancy's "surprisingly personable giggle that sometimes managed to bubble up through all her anger and anxiety."
Mallon places Christopher Hitchens, the intrepid journalist and writer, wherever something important is happening. At the 1986 Reagan-Gorbachev summit conference in Reykjavík, Iceland, Hitchens stands at the harbor as Gorbachev disembarks. He notes with interest the demonstrators protesting U.S. policy in Nicaragua.
To some readers, Mallon's wicked humor will seem too brutal. He relates that Pamela Harriman ran into Jackie Onassis at the Metropolitan Museum in New York: Jackie was "flashing that huge smile so unfortunately compromised by her smoker's teeth." And his treatment of the Carters, in the form of Nancy's musings, also slips over the edge: "No matter how prudish and pickle-pussed the two of them might be, there was no getting away from how much they had done for her and Ronnie - first by defeating the Fords . . . and then, once in the White House, by screwing up so badly they seemed to have spent their whole four years rolling out a red carpet for the Reagans."
Despite such excesses, in Finale, Mallon impressively blends his singular knowledge of political history with his limitless imagination to capture an era.
Katherine Bailey is a book critic in Bloomington, Minn. For more of her reviews, see: katherinebaileyonbooks.com.