Covering a momentous several months in 1986, this is an intriguing, humorous, even catty backstage view of the Reagan presidency from an artisan of the historical novel.
Mallon (Watergate, 2012, etc.) picks up the political narrative a couple of years after his previous, Nixon-era novel. Reagan is preparing for his second summit with Gorbachev on nuclear disarmament. His wife, Nancy, who confers with her astrologer about the president’s actions and with Merv Griffin on everything else, wields considerable influence in the White House. Also perfectly coiffed and politically muscular is the $100 million widow of Averell Harriman, Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman, whose funding and machinations on the Democratic side expose the complex horse-trading ahead of that year’s midterm election. To a four-page list of historical figures, Mallon adds a few fictional ones tied mainly to the Iran-Contra spectacle and Washington’s gay insiders—dubbed the Homintern by Christopher Hitchens. The late journalist, a major character here and a subplot unto himself as he pursues the early inklings of Iran-Contra, was the dedicatee of Watergate and is described in this book’s acknowledgements as a “beloved friend.” The main plot, aside from history itself, concerns a popular president’s sudden faltering amid crises abroad and at home. Mallon doesn’t go far in plumbing the Reagan enigma that has stumped so many, but he creates revealing moments in the first couple’s marriage. Historical fiction at this high level satisfies the appetite for speculation or even titillation through restraint as much as research, and Mallon rarely overdoes it—though he seems to have a weakness for insults, as in this small sample: "Pity anyone near Teddy’s Cutty-Sarked breath during the delivery of all those aspirated aitches” (Hitchens on Edward Kennedy); “that little patent-leather martinet” (Nancy on John Tower); “a Fabergé egg that talks” (Pat Nixon on Nancy).
Mallon’s version of history is close enough to fact to revive faded memories, while his imagining of who thought and said what presents some of the coherence and delights of fiction without the excesses of those “what if” rethinks scribbled by Newt Gingrich et al.