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Fellow Travelersby Thomas Mallon
Synopses & Reviews
Washington, D.C., in the early 1950s: a world of bare-knuckled ideology, hard drinking, and secret dossiers, dominated by such outsized characters as Richard Nixon, Drew Pearson, Perle Mesta, and Joe McCarthy. Into this fevered city steps Timothy Laughlin, a recent Fordham graduate and devout Catholic eager to join the crusade against Communism. A chance encounter with a handsome, profligate State Department official, Hawkins Fuller, leads to Tim's first job in D.C. and — after Fuller's advances — his first love affair. Now, as McCarthy mounts an increasingly desperate bid for power and internal investigations focus on "sexual subversives" in the government, Tim and Fuller find it ever more dangerous to navigate their double lives. Drawn into a maelstrom of deceit and intrigue, and clinging to the friendship of a beautiful young woman named Mary Johnson, Tim struggles to reconcile his political convictions, his love for God, and his love for Fuller — an entanglement that will end in a stunning act of betrayal.
Moving between the Senate Office Building and the Washington Evening Star, the diplomatic world of Foggy Bottom and NATO's front line in Europe, Fellow Travelers is energized by high political drama, unexpected humor, and genuine heartbreak. It is Thomas Mallon's most accomplished and daring novel to date.
"McCarthy-era Washington, D.C., is as twisted and morally compromised as a noir Los Angeles in Mallon's latest, a wide-ranging examination of betrayal and clashing ideologies. The young ladies in the secretary pool are agog over dapper bureaucrat Hawkins Fuller, though his attentions covertly focus on newly minted Fordham graduate and good Catholic Tim Laughlin. Hawkins helps Tim land a job and, after feeling out the impressionable young man, makes a place in his bed for him. Mary Johnson, a friend to both closeted men, watches with rising alarm as Tim and Hawkins carry on their affair and Washington seethes in paranoia over Communists and 'sexual deviation.' Mary, meanwhile, succumbs to her own lustful yearnings and has an affair with a married businessman, leading to a predictable, though deftly played, quandary. The District's social milieu is solidly realized, with such period icons as Mary McGrory and Drew Pearson in evidence alongside political heavyweights — McCarthy, Kennedy, Nixon and the like. Less convincing, however, is the on-again-off-again and largely one-sided relationship between Washington greenhorn Tim and cold, calculating careerist Hawkins. Mallon (Bandbox; Dewey Defeats Truman) offers an intricate, fluent and divergent perspective on a D.C. rife with backstabbing and power grabbing." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"'The personal is political' — one of the catchphrases of the gay liberation movement — might serve as an epigraph to Thomas Mallon's exuberant new novel, 'Fellow Travelers.' Reduced to its beams and studs (in both senses of the word), the novel is a love story. Hawkins Fuller is a handsome, Park Avenue WASP, and Tim Laughlin is a skittishly devout working-class Irish Catholic. They both work for... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) the federal government in Washington. The time, however, is the mid-1950s, the heyday of Sen. Joe McCarthy and the moment when the State Department's initiative to purge its work force of homosexual men and women was at its zenith. Not surprisingly, Hawk, who works for the State Department, and Tim, who is an assistant to Sen. Charles Potter, one of McCarthy's colleagues, soon find themselves caught up in a political maelstrom: 'chained,' as Mallon writes, 'to the electrified cage of who had what on whom.' Mallon has made something of a specialty of the historical novel, and in particular the novel of American politics. (His other books include 'Dewey Defeats Truman' and 'Henry and Clara .') He also lives in Washington, and his fondness for the city is evident throughout 'Fellow Travelers,' which shuttles from senate offices to seedy gay bars. And though real people pop up from time to time — Richard Nixon, Perle Mesta, Mary McGrory, a memorable Roy Cohn — the focus remains on Mallon's imaginary protagonists. Hawk is elusive, alluring and feckless. He wants everything: He wants to ensure that he doesn't lose his family's money, and he wants to have a good time, and he wants to keep his job, and he wants to get married, and he wants to be able to sleep with as many men as he feels like. One afternoon he casually picks up Tim, a naive Fordham graduate whose Catholic faith is matched by his faith in American democracy. Starved as much for sensation as affection, Tim falls instantly and hopelessly in love; he can't resist the admixture of 'protectiveness, affection, distance, enforcement' that Hawk proffers. Mallon integrates Hawk and Tim's story seamlessly into the larger drama of the McCarthy witch hunt, as in the memorable scene when Hawk, under interrogation to determine if he's homosexual, is asked to read aloud from 'Of Human Bondage.' ('Was the interrogator expected to detect a tribal affinity between author and reader?' he wonders.) Mallon is also very good at showing the ways in which political and pop-culture events influence how people conceive of themselves, as when Tim, hungry for details about Hawk's past but not wanting to own up to his curiosity, finds himself asking questions with a feigned casualness, 'like an undercover agent in East Berlin.' At moments like this, he brings to mind the writer who, for me, has done the most to turn historical fiction into art: Penelope Fitzgerald. But Mallon's determination never to let the reader forget when and where the action is taking place can be distracting, even disruptive. He can come off sounding like a policy wonk ('He joked that the federal government's dismissal of fourteen hundred security risks was assisting the attrition through which it was supposed to shed itself of fifty thousand civilian employees by next June') or a researcher so enamored by his discoveries that he feels determined to shoehorn them in. Usually, though, his storytelling is brisk and seductive. Throughout 'Fellow Travelers,' he displays an expert's knowledge of how to wield the novelist's most effective tools, suspense and elision. His characters engage in swift, bantering repartee that is all the more winning for its artificiality. Nor is he afraid to employ cinematic locales (Joe McCarthy's wedding reception), hyperbolic gestures (especially slaps), even a little soft-core role-play ('Who owns you?' Fuller whispers into Tim's ear, the first time they sleep together). As chapter flows into chapter, Capitol Hill jargon gives way casually to the sort of lurid kitsch that would thrill the queeny habituis of the D.C. gay bars that Hawk sometimes trawls. One can't help but applaud Mallon's refusal to cede to the arbiters of good taste, not to mention his flouting of the workshop masters who insist that in novels politics must be reduced to an easily digestible pablum. All told, there's something wonderfully over-the-top about 'Fellow Travelers,' and particularly about Hawk, who, starting with his penetrating name, is a sort of fill-in-the-blanks avatar of masculine potency. And while his aw-shucks humor and sheeny wit eventually betray his spiritual emptiness, these qualities also allow him to pass the State department's queer test with flying colors. Not surprisingly, he's a 'top.' Tim, by contrast, is as much of a 'foggy bottom' as the D.C. neighborhood in which he and Hawk tryst. Tim's efforts to reconcile his homosexuality with his Catholicism lead his mind in circles of intellectual striving no less vicious than the whirlwind of corruption in which McCarthy endlessly churns. Contemplating 'the possibility that there really was no such thing as happiness or unhappiness,' Tim concludes: 'Maybe there was only intensity — and then everything else.' Intensity Hawk provides in spades — its darkness and its joyfulness both — and when, after numerous brawls, threats and boozers, Tim finds himself being groped by a drunk Joe McCarthy, 'Fellow Travelers' reaches an apotheosis of its own, as Mallon weaves potboiler and political history into a bright rainbow flag of a novel. David Leavitt's new novel, 'The Indian Clerk,' will be published in September. He co-directs the MFA program in Creative Writing at the University of Florida." Reviewed by Michael DirdaRon CharlesIlan StavansGraham JoyceStephen ProtheroDavid Leavitt, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"The weakness of many historical novels is that the history is reduced to a theme park in which the characters cavort but represents little more. The historical import of McCarthyism helps Mallon avoid that pitfall to a significant degree: The personalities of his characters are securely tied to the environment in which they exist and represent varied potential responses to it." Chicago Tribune
"[A]n enthrallingly detailed and disturbingly relevant look at a bottom-barrel-scraping time in American history." Miami Herald
"This is Mallon's best historical novel, period, and better than most contemporary novels of any stripe." Philadelphia Inquirer
"[A] compelling tale and a convincing picture of an era in which the most important wardrobe item for many in Washington was a mask." St. Petersburg Times
"The political drama, colorful characters, betrayals, and backstabbing of Washington politicians come alive in this recommended historical novel." Library Journal
From the highly acclaimed author of Bandbox and Dewey Defeats Truman comes a searing historical novel about the competing claims of faith, love, and politics during the McCarthy era.
About the Author
Thomas Mallon is the author of two previous novels, Aurora 7 and Arts and Sciences, as well as four works of nonfiction, among them Stolen Words and A Books of One's Own. He is currently literary editor of Gentlemen's Quarterly. He lives in New York City.
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