Mallon’s latest historical novel (after Bandbox, 2004, etc.) takes us back to the nominally peaceful mid-1950s, when the twin menaces of Communism and homosexuality were the real enemies of all things American.
Taking a page or two from Gore Vidal, Mallon juxtaposes the progress of Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s vindictive Un-American Activities Committee with the (similarly verboten) “subversion” practiced by closeted State Department whiz Hawkins Fuller (of godlike face and form, and shifting loyalties) and the young naïf who worships him. Callow senatorial aide Tim Laughlin is soft-shelled meat for the rapacious sexual appetites of the “Hawk”: A gentle, good Catholic boy who hoped political life might make a man of him, he refuses—even in the confessional—to repent of the dark pleasures to which Fuller subjects him. Their relationship takes place over a span of several years marked by the Korean War’s conclusion, the Suez Crisis, the Hungarian Revolution and the looming national prominence of V.P. Richard Nixon and Sen. John F. Kennedy. Though the large load of exposition required is not always successfully dramatized, we do learn much about the major issues of the time, and Mallon proves adept at making complex geopolitical matters flesh by filtering them through the viewpoints and agendas of both his principal fictional characters and a lively horde of historical ones, including Washington columnist Mary McGrory, Joseph McCarthy’s duplicitous attack dog Roy Cohn and miscellaneous members of Congress. The fallout from power politics is vividly shown in its destructive relation to Tim Laughlin’s selfless love and vulnerable idealism, as the Hawkins Fullers of the world ride the bubble of their charm, over bodies too numerous to count.
An ambitious, absorbing caper that’s smartly paced, tough-minded and infused with emotional depth.