Finale: A Novel of the Reagan Years, by Thomas Mallon

Nine stars

Mallon has created a second superbly crafted that paints the presidency of a strong American surrounded by turmoil. Using his strength within in the historical fiction genre, Mallon parachutes the reader into the life of Ronald Reagan at a time when the world was watching, and holding their collective breath. After a preface that lays the groundwork for the bitterness of the ’76 campaign and dear Nancy’s obsession with the insights of her astrologer, the reader finds themselves lodged into a narrative between August and December of 1986. Within that period, President Reagan was juggling a few items of greatest importance to him: retaining a Senate majority during the mid-term elections, continuing the discussion of a thawing of relations with the Soviets, and a pesky item around backing the Contras in Central America while selling arms to Iran. As the narrative progresses, the reader learns much of the role played by Nancy Reagan, the apparent marionette behind the president’s decision-making abilities. When not bemoaning the lack of support she felt she got from Congress on her ‘Just Say No!’ initiative, Nancy was either trying to oust the Chief of Staff, Don Regan, or trying to negotiate an early abdication from the White House after learning of the placement of Uranus in relation to Saturn. As Reagan and Gorbachev agreed to meet in Reykjavik to discuss nuclear disarmament, the world watched. These tense and critical negotiations ensued over a weekend as the two world leaders tried to hammer-out what might be the end to the Cold War, yet failed abysmally to come to a concrete agreement. Throughout that period of cut-throat politics, dead ‘Mommy’ could help but complain from back in Washington that her ‘Ronnie’ was being handled and given poor information. It is a minute spark in a Lebanese magazine that turns heads away from the disjointed and fruitless summit and towards an apparent plan within the president’s National Security team to sell weapons to Iran and funnel that money to the Contras in Nicaragua and El Salvador. This event, which the president feigned no knowledge about, turned the tables in the late autumn and paralysed the GOP in their quest for Senate supremacy. Thereafter, the Reagans were left to limp towards 1987 and the final quarter of their time in the White House, a blemish that could be removed with a Hollywood smile and a final rally to support the Gipper. With wonderful side and backstories flowing throughout, Mallon develops a wonderfully argued novel that places the reins of power outside of Ronald W. Reagan and firmly in the hands of his manipulative and driven wife. A must-read for any who love political fiction with a sense of reality permeating throughout. 

Mallon has a wonderful way of capturing reality in a well-paced narrative. The reader is left feeling that they are in the midst of the action, rather than an omnipotent observer. While there is no way to substantiate many of the conversations had within the pages of this book, it is likely that (the dialogue) which keeps it from being pure fact. Historical fiction is at its best when left to the devices of Thomas Mallon, as he has shown on at least a few occasions. The reader is also treated to many characters that enrich the story and offer their own historical marker, leaving the tale with a much more complex and lasting impression on those who take the time to digest all that is on offer. While I would have preferred a focus on Iran Contra and how Reagan bumbled his way through it, use of Reykjavik and Nancy’s puppeteering was equally interesting, especially as it is left to the reader to determine if a woman is reading the stars out her window in the California night and sending messages through the First Lady to make major political decisions. Mallon’s sarcastic style is not lost, nor is his desire to argue that there were many heavy hitters seeking to influence decisions in the West Wing. Brilliant and one can hope there are more presidential novels to come.

Kudos, Mr. Mallon for showing me how fun and exciting political writing can be. I can only hope your quiver is full of more stories like this to keep your fans sated.