Finale: A Novel of the Reagan Years

By Thomas Mallon

(Pantheon, $27.95, 480 pages)

Who is this author?

Thomas Mallon, who lives in Washington, D.C., has built a successful career as a writer of novels that are inspired by American history, including such major events as the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the Watergate scandal that led to Richard Nixon’s resignation. In addition to publishing nine novels, he also contributes to major publications, such as The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, and The Atlantic, and he served as literary editor of GQ .Mallon won an American Academy of Arts and Letters award for his prose style and was deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

What is this book about?                              

A savvy, often sardonic look back at the near past and the second term of President Ronald Reagan, which for some readers may seem like ancient history. Set mainly in 1986 and centering on his famous negotiation with Mikhail Gorbachev, the book moves back and forth  from Washington to Southern California, sharply delineating major real-life players, such as first lady Nancy Reagan, writer Christopher Hitchens, socialite Pamela Harriman and disgraced ex-President Richard Nixon, and mixing in fictional characters as well, all orbiting the popular but poorly understood Reagan, a genial mystery to friends and foes alike (and soon to be a victim of dementia). It spans the thawing of the Cold War, the burgeoning AIDS epidemic, the twisty machinations of arms-trading with enemies and other political chicanery. It was 30 years ago, but this book makes it as fresh as today’s headlines.

Why you’ll like it:

In the hands of a skilled novelist, historical fiction often can tell readers more about the past than a deeply researched but dry nonfiction book. Mallon has those skilled hands, as well as a compelling prose style, plus years of experience and knowledge of the real-life players he depicts here. The ‘80s were a complex time and Reagan was a complicated man whose presidency began a political polarization that is growing ever more potent. This book will help you make sense of what happened then and how it still affects what is happening now.

What others are saying:

Library Journal says: “Mallon, a longtime master at fictionally realizing history here takes on the “Reagan years,” specifically 1986. A few fictional subplots backdrop the main action, wherein a number of historical figures are given voice: Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Christopher Hitchens, even Bette Davis and John Hinckley. Except for Hinckley, the characters are nuanced, not simple paste ups. Take one of the principals, Nancy Reagan: astrology obsessed for sure but also self-aware. . . reflective, and genuinely human. Those who absolutely adore or detest her will probably both be disappointed.. . . The book’s centerpiece is the Iceland disarmament summit with Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev, and the tension is manifest. Readers who didn’t experience this time in history—or who aren’t familiar with the myriad luminaries who appear here, from Lindy Boggs through Jeanne Kirkpatrick and from Pat Moynihan to Mort Zuckerman—may feel at sea at times. But it’s worth it for this well-developed snapshot of an important year. Oh, Reagan himself? He comes across as vaguely charming but unreadable to friend and foe alike. As Kirkpatrick “says” to Nixon: “You’re complex, yes, but palpable. Reagan is smoke.”  VERDICT: For all devotees of historical fiction and this time period.

Kirkus says, in a starred review: “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. . . . 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 Mallon’s 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  . . . 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.

The Christian Science Monitor says: “Thomas Mallon takes this human clay and, after adding a dash of inspired inner dialogue, sculpts characters who embody the folly and frustration of political power. And, for good measure, Mallon’s characters never forget the striving required in the struggle for continued relevancy . . . Mallon has become a master of such political theater . . . What makes Mallon’s novels so much fun is the author’s blend of historical exactitude with imagined reactions and machinations. Many of those machinations play out in the plausible guise of fictional secondary players . . . Mallon fits all of these pieces together, combining broad historical accuracy and fictional verisimilitude with aplomb. Characters historical and fictional alike display bonfires of vanities, and insecurities, galore.”

Says Publishers Weekly: “In this novel, Mallon fixes his wide-angle historical lens on the presidency of Ronald Reagan, in particular the events leading up to the exposé of the Iran-Contra affair in 1986. As befitting the author’s usual literary mode, Reagan himself is a minor character in his own story. The major characters include such real-life personalities as rising English journalist Christopher Hitchens, the much-married English socialite Pamela Harriman, and would-be presidential assassin John Hinckley Jr. Worked in among these are several fictional characters, including Anders Little, an arms-control expert with a sexual secret; his friend, Anne Macmurray, an anti-nukes advocate; and her dying ex-husband, Peter Cox, a Texas contributor to Republican candidates. And of course, hovering in the background is “tan, rested and ready” Richard Milhouse Nixon in all his tragic Shakespearean glory . . .the novel boasts a telephone book–sized cast of characters and fits them inside a chronicle large enough to encompass the Reagan-era gay revisionism of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America and the gossip of Truman Capote’s “La Cote Basque, 1965.” What Mallon does best is dramatize the bizarre ’80s intersection of Hollywood and Washington, D.C, . . a crazy, quilted depiction of a contradiction-filled presidential administration.”

Says the AV Club: “Amid a presidential campaign of stupefying banality, where candidates compete to say the emptiest sentiment in the least insightful way possible, what a pleasure it is to enter the rough-and-tumble politics of Thomas Mallon’s historical novels. The elites of ‘80s government and media didn’t need soundbites: They had passions….Mallon captures that uncertain tenor of the times while portraying the complex drama of high-level politics with real clarity and energy. His take on W. can’t come soon enough.”

When is it available?

Mallon’s grand “Finale” is on the shelf at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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