Dewey Defeats Truman, by Thomas Mallon

Seven stars

Returning for another Thomas Mallon novel, I hoped to to amazed with a telling story set against the backdrop of a political situation that ties things all together. The year is 1948 and the United States is in presidential election mode. With Truman in the White House, it is time for the electorate to pass judgment on him, as he ascended to the post when FDR died in office. The stage is set and Truman does not seem all that sure that he can pull it off. Things turn to Owosso, Michigan, hometown of the Republican candidate, Thomas Dewey. The locals are gearing up and there are stirrings about the local boy making his way into the Oval Office, going so far as to prepare for being a new ‘must see’ spot for tourists. As the months pass, it is simply a waiting game for the all but coronation of Dewey as POTUS. On the local front, Anne Macmurray is swept up, not in the political fervour, but with two men who seek her heart. One, a wealthy Republican who is as confident as he is determined, seeks to woo Anne, while showing her what connections can do. The other, a former soldier turned United Auto Workers organizer who has a flame burning inside him and seeks to ensure the underdog is never forgotten. As spring and summer turn to autumn, the choice will have to b made. Who will Anne choose and how will she come to the decision? Will Dewey’s momentum be able to carry him into the White House, leaving Truman in the dust? The knowledgeable reader knows the answer to at least one of these, but Mallon is never one to write without a significant twist. A decent piece of fiction with gritty political undertones, though not my favourite of the author’s work.

This is the first time I have sat down to physically read Mallon. The other of his novels I have allowed an audiobook reader guide me, which might be why I am less than enthused. I made my way through this piece, eager for the development of the plot—personal and political—but left feeling less than enthralled. There is surely a great deal of banter in this book, as Owosso residents cheer on their local boy and await his arrival on the campaign trail, but I felt lost in trying to connect with any of the three characters who play roles in this love triangle. Mallon uses long chapters to tell his story and pulls the reader in many directions, peppering politics with post-War American development. A few young characters seek to define themselves throughout the narrative, with a core few mentioned above. It may be I who is at fault for not liking this one, though I have seen others echo my sentiments. Still, I know authors cannot please everyone all the time. I am simply happy this was not the first Mallon I ever tried. I have a few more I would like to attempt down the road. Perhaps I was looking for more bang for my buck. Apt to use in reference to this novel, ‘The buck stops here!’. It most truly did!

Kudos, Mr. Mallon, for an attempt to pull me in. It did not work as well as I would have liked, but I cannot fault you entirely for this.

This book fulfils the February 2020 requirement of the Mind the Bookshelf Gap reading challenge.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge:

Landfall, by Thomas Mallon

Nine stars

The subject matter of Thomas Mallon’s most recent novel is both captivating and poignant, much like the others I have read over the years. Using a political era as a backdrop, Mallon injects his own fictional story to pull the entire time period together. During the 1978 congressional campaign of a young George Bush, teenagers Allison O’Connor and Ross Weatherall meet at the candidate’s “Bush Bash”, which ends up as an indelible mark on the family and helps to sink the young man’s campaign. Fast-forward to January 2005, it is now President Bush, who is about to deliver his second inaugural address. Full of hope for a newly democratized Iraq, Bush delivers a speech that he hopes will bring the country together and show that America remains a leader in democratic development. Bush’s coterie of senior officials include a Defence Secretary—Rumsfeld—who floods the air with memos and his twist on events. and a newly shuffled Secretary of State—Rice— with innovative ideas to ensure Iraq and much of the rest of America’s interests are not drowned out by protestors. Though, nothing can top the apathetic vice-president—Cheney—who seems to be there, but not. The Bush Administration is working on all they can, spinning and shaping how America and the world will judge them in the years to come. Allison O’Connor returns to the narrative with a place within the National Security Agency (NSA) on Rumsfeld’s recommendation and uses her military background to help shape the future of a democratic Iraq that is months away from a referendum on its new constitution and eventual parliamentary elections. Ross Weatherall reappears after being appointed to sit on the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities, which has him quite busy, both in Washington and down in Louisiana. During a chance encounter, O’Connor and Weatherall remember that time they spent together and forge a new connection. During a trip to New Orleans, both come to terms with their relationship as weather off the coast is bringing Hurricane Katrina towards land. Separated and panicking, both O’Connor and Weatherall do all they can to survive, knowing that their roles in the Bush Administration will change drastically, as will the connection they share. With reaction to Katrina slower than might have been hoped, Bush and his closest advisors seek to distract with news about Iraq and how they can spread democracy around the world. Full of narratives that give the reader the feeling of actual events, Mallon paints an interesting picture of situations during this compacted time using a number of highly recognisable figures. Recommended to those who love recent historical fiction, as well as the reader who likes politics in all its machinations.

I have enjoyed a few novels by Thomas Mallon, all of which bring the story to life and resurrect some interesting historical happenings. He is able to breathe life into events like no other, offering a smooth connection with events and the fictional narrative he wishes to add. While Allison O’Connor and Ross Weatherall remain the recurring protagonists on the fictional side of the coin, there are many who play a central role throughout this piece, too many to list here. Mallon develops all his characters together effectively and tells stories not only with their words, but the actions and interactions they have with one another. In a story whose title led me to believe this would be about the Bush Administration foibles in New Orleans, the story is more about the democratic containment of Iraq and how America made landfall in this newly ‘released’ country and how setting about morals and political systems were seen by some as political liberation and others as neo-colonialism. Mallon does a brilliant job of blurring fact and fiction, taking liberties throughout by using characters and situations that suit his needs. The narrative flows so smoothly and the vignettes are wonderfully chosen to prove a larger point, while not entirely vilifying anyone. The underlying plot involving O’Connor and Weatherall is not lost on the reader, though it is a thread that is intertwined with so many others that it does not stick out. With a mix of chapter lengths, the reader will surely lose themselves and want to devour the book, even if they know the gist of the historical pathways being explored.

Kudos, Mr. Mallon, for another brilliant piece. I cannot wait to read more of your work, which always keeps me on the edge of my seat.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge:

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.