By Thomas Mallon
Pantheon. 354 pp. $25
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Reviewed by Roger K. Miller
It is terribly unprofessional of me to gush, I know, but Thomas Mallon's
s is the best historical novel I've read since, well, since I reread MacKinlay Kantor's
three years ago. This is Mallon's best historical novel, period, and better than most contemporary novels of any stripe.
Henry and Clara, about the Lincoln assassination, and Dewey Defeats Truman (the 1948 presidential election), and Bandbox (the founding in the 1920s of a New Yorker-style magazine) are remarkable works of historical re-creation, but in Fellow Travelers he has outdone himself in taking on the McCarthyite Red-baiting of the early 1950s. It does not just depict American political life, but is infused, more so than in any of his previous efforts, with the pain, and struggle, and joys of life itself.
Mallon operates a time machine, dropping us right into that era when being "on the phone"- i.e., having phone service - was not taken for granted and "waiting for the tubes to warm up" on the radio was. Did readers not know better, they might think they were reading a book written at the time it describes. This is a rarity in historical fiction, in most of which the reader senses the gap between the time of composition and time of story.
It also feels as if Mallon has strung his tale upon a timeline - that is, made the actions of his fictional characters fit the events of the time, rather than the usual authorial practice of plugging period elements into the story to give it verisimilitude. However he constructed it, it is brilliant; the true-life and fictional elements fit together as closely and smoothly as the dovetailing on a Federal Era drop-leaf table in the home of one or another of Mallon's scheming Washington politicos.
The Washington of Fellow Travelers is a sink of venality, self-promotion, betrayal, perjury, dirty tricks and dirty secrets. As the author happens to live there, that view may be based on more than his formidable historical research.
Into this morass comes innocent Timothy Laughlin, a recent Fordham University graduate almost childlike in his twin passions of anticommunism and Roman Catholicism. Tim gets a low-level job with Sen. Charles Potter, (R., Mich.), one of many actual personages in the book and a communist hunter along with his Republican colleague, Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, albeit less fiery.
Tim quickly loses some of his innocence by developing another passion he always suspected, or feared, might be lurking within him - for another man, to wit, the impossibly handsome Hawkins Fuller, a minor functionary in the State Department. Hawkins is an elegant predator and a consummate cynic; eventually he marries as a cover for his homosexuality.
Mallon is not on a righteous crusade to defend homosexuality; rather, he treats it in all its personal, social, political and romantic complexities. He shows us how communism and homosexuality were perceived as twin threats that needed rooting out, particularly from the State Department. Says one gay guy to another in bar: "There's a Master List. Of us." Nearly everyone, it seems, is blackmailing or informing on someone else, usually on some homo- or heterosexual ground. Tim wonders what McCarthy's aide, Roy Cohn, has on his boss, and whether others have something on still others. He realizes Cohn is in love with another McCarthy aide, G. David Schine.
The novel's center, however, is Tim and his dilemma. He is, and will forever remain, head-over-heels in love with Hawkins, and petrified over what that means for his Catholic faith. His devoutness fills him with self-loathing over his membership in the "homosexual subspecies" and God's consignment of it to the "slum precinct in His creation."
There are other love affairs, gay and straight, licit and illicit. Indeed, Hawkins and Mary Johnson, a fellow State Department employee, have a love-hate relationship expressed in witty, cutting remarks. On Mary's part it is to some extent erotic, albeit never acted upon.
Mary knows Tim is heading for a fall. She disdains Hawkins for many reasons, but mostly for breaking Tim's heart and for the "corrupt bargain" of his marriage.
The novel runs from September 1953 to May 1957, bracketed by a prologue and epilogue set in October 1991 in Estonia, where Hawkins, at 66, is finishing his career.
The ending is wistful and bittersweet. Life replaces Tim's battered innocence with a kind of forced nobility. But as for Hawkins' eternal insouciance, well, despite Mary's efforts it proves tough - to borrow from one of the decade's most popular songs - to melt a Cold, Cold Heart.