By Thomas Mallon
Pantheon. 354 pp. $25
"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 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 workforce 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 softcore 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 habitués 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.