Spinning one for the Gipper
As a capital native and White House veteran, I am usually allergic to Washington-oriented novels, movies and television series. They seldom get things right. Every once in a while, however, there is an exception, and I am happy to report that “Finale,” Thomas Mallon’s follow-up to his widely-acclaimed earlier historical novel, “Watergate,” is a splendid example of the genre at its best.
Most of the action — although with frequent references to previous events and with a short, moving epilogue — takes place during a few months in the autumn of 1986, leading up to the Reagan-Gorbachev summit in Reykjavik, the November mid-term elections and the building Iran-Contra scandal that, while largely forgotten today, nearly wrecked the Reagan presidency in its last two years.
Mr. Mallon isn’t just a gifted novelist; he also has a sound working knowledge of Washington ways and he is old enough to remember first-hand most of the characters he writes about with a wicked wit and fine Italian hand. At least one of them, the late British literary-political gadfly Christopher Hitchens, was actually his close friend. But even characters he never met are portrayed with both merciless accuracy and sympathetic imagination. Mr. Mallon has a way of channeling the public figures he writes about, and an astoundingly good ear for dialogue. Limiting my examples to characters in “Finale” that I have actually known and had lengthy conversations with — including Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole, Pat Buchanan, Adm. John Poindexter, Ollie North, the aforementioned Christopher Hitchens, Bill Buckley and his formidable wife Pat, and even Kitty Carlisle, the widow of playwright Moss Hart, who makes a cameo appearance — the words Mr. Mallon puts into the mouths of his nonfiction characters are virtually pitch perfect. His own writing style is ironic without being sadistic, more Anthony Powell than Evelyn Waugh to use an English analogy. If there is one criticism to be made of “Finale” it, too, is ironic. The problem with most historical novels is that the fictional protagonists tend to be more plausible and fully-formed than the actual historical characters who often fail to make it past the cardboard cutout stage. In “Finale” the opposite is true; Mr. Mallon does such a good job with his historical figures that it is hard for the reader to really engage with his main fictional characters, Anders Little (a thoroughly decent but professionally and sexually conflicted NSC staffer in his late thirties), and Anne Macmurray (an older, sympathetic divorced woman coming to terms with both death and what remains of her life). The same applies to the fictional part of the plot, involving dirty money, Iran-Contra, political intrigues, ingenious twists and turns that are fine in themselves but less interesting than what the author has going on in the lives and heads of dozens of real-life characters from the Reagans on down.
The late Pamela Harriman, a muchmarried minor English aristocrat who may have been the 20th century’s nearest equivalent to a great courtesan and who started her public career as the wife of Winston Churchill’s scapegrace son, Randolph, receives rough but well-deserved treatment, as in the following fictional exchange with Christopher Hitchens.
Hitchens: “They say you slept with whatever general he [Prime Minister Churchill] asked you to. In order to gain information, of course.”
Harriman: “Well, I certainly didn’t bother with any colonels. I left those to Nancy Mitford.”
Perhaps the most insightful passage in the book comes when Mr. Mallon has Vigdis Finnbogadottir, Iceland’s president, who has just had a pleasant chat with Reagan on his arrival in Reykjavic for the arms talks, reflect on the encounter:
“[She] was already thinking that she’d never be able to tell her friends what he was like. He seemed all at once very close and far away; rather silly and a little mystical ... he was composed of two elements that seemed to alternate but never to add up. She could hear herself telling those friends that he might be the most deeply shallow man she’d ever met. It would not be a witticism, and she would mean it, she thought, more as a compliment than criticism.”
The Ronald Reagan I remember was something like that, puzzling until you realized that the real man, enigmatic to so many, was hiding in plain sight all along. Smiling, kindly and optimistic — but extremely self-contained — he was directed by an inner compass that always seemed to kick in just when you thought he’d gone hopelessly adrift.