A maestro of catastrophe
Thomas Mallon’s latest work of historical fiction tackles the presidency of George W. Bush
On the morning after the 2016 presidential election, author Thomas Mallon rolled out of bed and made immediate plans “before I’d had my coffee” to find the Board of Elections online. There he made a decision and took an action he never thought he’d take. He voided his registration in the Republican Party.
The results of the election trumped, if you will, any desire to remain a Republican in favor of being an independent, which he remains.
Did he vote for Hillary Clinton? No. A 67-year-old who hails from Long Island, Mallon is openly, proudly gay, and in his heart of hearts, he will always be Republican.
Even so, “The Republican Party is now Donald Trump’s party,” Mallon says. “Which means that not only am I not a loyal Republican, I am not a Republican, period, anymore. I find Trump just absolutely intolerable.”
More than anything, this lifelong Republican is a celebrated author, a writer of novels and nonfiction, whose byline has appeared in such lofty publications as The New Yorker and The Atlantic. His new book, Landfall, is labeled historical fiction, about the presidency of a Republican he voted for twice, Dallas resident George W. Bush.
As is typical of Mallon’s books, which include one of the best ever written about the assassination of president John F. Kennedy, Mrs. Paine’s Garage, Landfall is getting favorable reviews, from such politically disparate sources as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.
Although Mallon voted for Bush “with enthusiasm” over Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004, he disagreed with the Republican incumbent during the latter election over the hot-button issue of gay marriage, which Bush opposed by spearheading a constitutional amendment that would have legally defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman.
At one time, Mallon notes, Bill and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were themselves less than enthusiastic on the issue of gay marriage, which the Supreme Court rendered lawful in 2015.
“In most of the country, it’s reached such a speedy acceptance,” Mallon says, “that I think we tend to forget that a position against gay marriage was hardly hate speech or anything like that. But I did disagree with the president” – meaning Bush.
Mallon remembers attending a White House Christmas party during the Bush presidency with his longtime partner,
designer William Bodenschatz. The two were received warmly, underscoring Mallon’s feeling about the current state of politics in a deeply divided country.
“I think we are suffering from 100-percentness in our politics,” he says, citing the fact that a Republican he greatly admired, Ronald Reagan, took a position on AIDS during its earliest and most potent period that the author deemed “catastrophic.”
Reagan also appears as a Mallon character, in Finale, his second novel in a GOPthemed trilogy that began with Richard Nixon’s Watergate and concludes with Landfall. Watergate was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, and during the Bush years that inspired his new novel, Mallon served as deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
He says he’s drawn to presidents who cast a shadow of mystery, such as Nixon, Reagan and the younger Bush, whom Landfall tattoos as “a maestro of catastrophe.” He once considered writing a book on Bill Clinton but nixed it, finding him “complicated” but “not mysterious.”
Blessing it as “a superbly written novel,” the Journal describes Landfall as “a tragic love story” that begins with a bloody insurgency in Iraq and proceeds through the domestic horror of Hurricane Katrina, a low point for Bush.
Mallon has written 10 books of fiction and six works of nonfiction. In both genres, he has demonstrated a masterful knack of taking a character on the periphery – homemaker Ruth Paine, for instance – and telling a huge story such as the Kennedy assassination with her as the central character.
Another example was his compelling historical novel, Henry and Clara, in which he tells the story of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and its shocking aftermath by profiling the couple that shared the presidential box at Ford’s Theater on the night that John Wilkes Booth killed the president. Henry Rathbone, a decorated Union officer, ended up going mad, with his wife becoming the tragic footnote to Rathbone’s otherwise glorious legacy – he fatally shot and stabbed his beloved Clara.
So, it’s not surprising that such characters as Brett Kavanaugh populate the pages of Landfall, even though Mallon had finished the book before Kavanaugh ended up being nominated for the US Supreme Court and assailed during a tempestuous Senate hearing amid allegations of sexual assault.
Landfall begins with the so-called Bush Bash at a home in Lubbock, Texas, where Mallon once served as a professor of English at Texas Tech University. He has also taught at Vassar.
“I’m a historical novelist, and in some ways,” he says with a laugh, “we’re the original fake news. But fictionalization of facts and reality, I think that’s better left to novelists. I don’t want the participants of history – the makers of history – to be fictionalizing things.”
It should come as a surprise to no one, especially his fellow Republicans, who he’s talking about there. It’s the same guy who gave him that terrible morning-after feeling in 2016. So, will he ever write about President Donald Trump? As he told the Journal: “Never, never, never, never.” (The Dallas Morning News/MCT)
GEORGE W. BUSH campaigns for president in New Hampshire in 1999.