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By Katherine Weber

Sunday, April 9, 2000; Page X03


By Thomas Mallon

Pantheon. 303 pp. $24

Reviewed by Katharine Weber

It is a time when scientific discoveries and technological innovations are the stuff of daily headlines. Never before has mankind known so much about the natural world and our relationship to it. The more scientific information we accumulate, however, the more we embrace the paranormal, the otherworldly, the spiritual.

In this innovative time, many powerful people, while respecting and even celebrating the scientific discoveries of the day, see no conflict in being dependent on personal astrologers for daily guidance. In Washington, despite (or as a consequence of) the booming peacetime economy, corruption in government thrives. Every day, politicians are cosily helping the rich get richer while the needs of ordinary citizens are overlooked. There is surprising complacency among some politicians about the morality of displaying the Confederate flag.

Welcome to 1877, the year the moons of Mars were discovered. In Two Moons, Thomas Mallon's elegant fifth novel, in the murk and fog of malaria-infested Foggy Bottom, lonely 35-year-old Civil War widow Cynthia May seeks work at the Naval Observatory and finds, instead, purpose.

She must take a test of her skill with logarithms to see if she is suited for work as a human "calculator," working with data gathered by astronomers. "Her columns grew longer, and if she squinted at them, the confetti of inkings began to resemble a skyful of stars. She had time to let her mind wander. The Magi's search for Bethlehem; the music of Milton's crystal spheres; the prognostications of the D Street astrologer in whose parlor Cynthia had lately spent a dollar she could not afford: they could all be reduced to these numbers. There was actually no need to squint and pretend that the digits were the stars. They were, by themselves, wildly alive, fact and symbol of the vast, cool distances in which one located the light of different worlds."

Hugh Allison, the young astronomer who conducts the examination, strikes Cynthia as "less a preoccupied intellect than a fellow of feeling and mischief." She wins the job, of course. Assigned to work out calculations concerning the Transit of Venus, soon enough Cynthia has fallen in love with Hugh. She agrees to join Hugh in his extraordinary mischief -- a grandiose scheme to obtain a kind of astral immortality involving the illicit projection of a lighted image into the heavens.

In order to obtain the rare equipment for this caper, Cynthia allows herself to be drawn into the orbit of the powerful and corrupt Roscoe Conkling, "The War God," the powerful and corrupt senator from New York (one of several genuine historical figures in the novel) whom she first glimpses on her astrologer's doorstep. "Cynthia opened the door. Roscoe Conkling -- who had spent an active amatory life hoping never to be surprised by a second woman in any room where he had arranged to meet but one -- drew back, though only for a moment."

Thomas Mallon's last novel was Dewey Defeats Truman, the story of a love triangle that takes place in Owosso, Mich., Thomas E. Dewey's birthplace, in the 1940s. His best-known novel might be Henry and Clara, published in 1994, a brilliant fictional treatment of the young couple who shared President Lincoln's box that fateful April night in Ford's Theater.

Mallon has a fabulous eye for the people at the edge of the historical picture. In Two Moons he brings together a prodigious amount of well-researched period detail and an imaginative deployment of authentic characters who inhabit the past with sufficient comfort to keep them, for the most part, genuinely present as individuals in that time and place. The poisonous Washington atmosphere of hateful Reconstruction politics, tinged by the specter of malaria, practically seeps from the pages of the book.

Perhaps Hugh Allison is a bit stiff in his passions -- both for Cynthia and for astral immortality -- which seem more cerebral than heartfelt. But he is, after all, a scientist, and you know how they can be, with their heads in the stars. Ultimately, we do believe this story as it plays out to its bittersweet end. The lovely little romantic gesture on the final page, even if you saw it coming, is quite moving.

As was true for Steven Millhauser's eccentric and brilliant Martin Dressler, Two Moons is a novel about a quaint kind of homegrown ambition and optimism that is uniquely American. You could call Thomas Mallon either a dreamy scholar or a scholarly dreamer. Either way, his fiction is as lucent as moonlight.

Katharine Weber is the author of two novels, "Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear" and "The Music Lesson."

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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