Mallon extends his sharp-eyed fictional exegesis of real-life American politics (Finale: A Novel of the Reagan Years, 2015, etc.) into George W. Bush’s second term.
His imaginary protagonists are Ross Weatherall, director of a branch of the National Endowment of the Arts and Humanities (Mallon’s make-believe mashup of the NEA and NEH), and Allie O’Connor, a National Security Council staffer hired by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to give the president her skeptical view of what Rumsfeld now considers the failing occupation of Iraq. Carefully controlled Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice gamely supports staying the course, and several highly charged meetings show her and Rumsfeld maneuvering for position around their president’s abruptly shifting moods. Bush is gently but unsparingly portrayed—“In his way,” comments Henry Kissinger, “the sincerest man I’ve ever met….Which is to say…he’s a disaster.” As Allie grapples with the slow-moving disaster of Iraq, Ross is plunged into the immediate nightmare of Hurricane Katrina while working in New Orleans on an updated version of the old Works Progress Administration guidebook. His eyewitness view of the government’s wholly inadequate response (limned in restrained but still appalling detail by Mallon) turns this once-ardent Bushie against the administration; at the same time, Allie has come to the reluctant conclusion that however ill-advised the invasion was, it would be morally wrong to abandon the Iraqis. Their conflicted relationship is not quite as interesting as Mallon’s knowledgeable and diamond-hard portraits of actual Washington insiders across the political spectrum, from showboating John Edwards (Mallon’s most acid character sketch) to tough-as-nails Barbara Bush (no sweet little old lady in pearls here). Nonetheless, the fact that Ross and Allie change their views based on experiences on the ground makes a refreshing—and one suspects deliberate—contrast with the dug-in positions of today’s political partisans. A rueful 2013 epilogue reunites Ross with Bush, who has discovered through painting “a whole world of in-between.”
Marvelously detailed, often darkly funny, as informative as it is entertaining. Mallon may well be the 21st century’s Anthony Trollope.