A mae­stro of catas­tro­phe

Thomas Mal­lon’s lat­est work of his­tor­i­cal fic­tion tack­les the pres­i­dency of Ge­orge W. Bush

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - BOOKS - • MICHAEL GRANBERRY

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.

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