A skilled fiction-writer and essayist trains his eye on contemporary writers.
Mallon (Civil War novel Two Moons, 1999, etc.) writes for publications ranging from GQ to the Yale Review, and these pieces show a similar breadth: whether sizing up Nicholson Baker (whose strength, he writes, lies in depicting the small in epic proportions) or describing Don DeLillo as the first author to write a post–Cold War novel (Underworld, 1997), Mallon always follows the E.B. White school of prose: everything is clear and concise and definitive. Each essay is a model for those who aspire to the form, but the author uses his clarity to sharp ends: Mallon has literary bones to pick, especially with memoirists whom he views as more concerned with their own feelings and interior lives than the world around them. Twice Mallon writes that he’d “rather end the day having had one clear thought than one strong feeling” and, by the way he judges writers, the reader believes him. His love for thought, at the expense of feeling, is allied to his love for hard facts and historical fiction (he has written five historical novels). Sometimes this stance is right on target: his review of David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars (“Snow Falling on Readers”) blasts its sentimentality, moving anyone who enjoyed the story to shame. When attacking Will Self’s novels for failing to realize their own potential, however, one feels the specter of rigidity rearing its ugly head. And when he (partially) praises Edmund Morris’s biography of Ronald Reagan, Dutch, Mallon reveals that sometimes fact can be circumvented when it involves some of his favorite themes. But these, after all, are Mallon’s essays and, while sometimes they show cracks, they are fundamentally solid.
Well-wrought work strongly seasoned with polemic.