In the acknowledgments of his latest political novel, Thomas Mallon thanks a number of people committed to preserving the legacy of Ronald Reagan. Archivists at the Reagan Library were helpful, for example, as were those affiliated with the Reagan Foundation.
One can easily imagine them now leaning against a closed door and whispering, “What was I thinking?”
In other words, “Finale” is the kind of novel Washington loves. Set mostly in 1986 and 1987, it is a political drama anchored in historical events and oozing withering assessments of real-life people, many of them still alive. A few fictional characters drive the narrative and best showcase Mallon’s gift for storytelling, but no one will be talking about them in the next few weeks.
Front and center is Nancy Reagan, who comes off as publicly brittle but privately fragile, seemingly always on the brink of despair as she tries to protect her husband from everyone. The media, his staff (especially his schedulers and Chief of Staff Donald Regan), his Cabinet, his children, her astrologer — all of them are the enemy at some point because none of them share her singular devotion to a husband whose mental state she fears is declining.
Nancy is a worrier who seldom spends time in the moment because her mind keeps galloping away to all that annoys her. Such wide, rocky terrain.
Consider this scene in which Nancy watches her husband talk with his daughter Maureen Reagan about Congress’s proposed sanctions against South Africa. They are at a dinner with prominent friends — everybody who was anybody during the Reagan years makes an appearance in this book — and the president appears to be enjoying this exchange with his daughter. A different scene unspools in Nancy’s head:
“Enough, thought Nancy. She didn’t want to get on to the blacks, or have floating through the dining room a reminder that the still-Republican Senate would probably soon override Ronnie’s veto on this matter. But mostly she thought this was enough of Maureen, always a square peg, for one night. She was very pretty (Jane’s nose) and quite bright, but she’d never really found her way. She’d gained a smidgen of success in TV and then another smidgen in politics, but she couldn’t keep herself from overreaching (that run for the Senate nomination four years ago!), any more than she could keep from reminding audiences that she’d become a registered Republican before her father had. Yeah, yeah. And she was far too fat for a woman in her mid-forties. Strange, really, how she seemed more like Ronnie’s stepdaughter than the real daughter she was, from the first, wrong wife.”
Phew. Nancy’s mind is a dark place, and Mallon never tires of giving glimpses that can leave one rather breathless.
There are surprises. Richard Nixon comes off as a sympathetic character, banished from center stage but still trying to influence foreign policy through secret notes and furtive phone calls. He is profane and often funny, and his tenderness toward his wife, Pat, who has suffered a stroke, reflects a husband’s regret for insatiable ambition. He dwells on the past as he watches Pat sleep in the dancing shadows of Nancy and Ronald’s televised “Just Say No” pitch:
“He thought of how little credit she’d ever gotten. Nancy might be waging her own ‘war’ on drugs, but it was Pat who’d actually gone into a combat zone, shaking hands with the bloodied and bandaged GIs at that hospital in Long Binh. Christ, he’d turned her whole life into a combat zone. He glanced back at the Reagans, sitting so contentedly with each other on the plush of their televised couch, and he thought — inevitably — of the furniture onstage at the El Capitan Theatre, the night of the Checkers speech; thought of Pat, silent and agonized, managing a smile when the cameras went in for a reaction shot, while he exposed their hard-luck finances to the entire country.”
This illustrates the strength of Mallon’s ability to cast even high-profile politicians as fellow humans — apparently still a revelation to many — but it also prompts this warning: If you don’t know a lot of political history, and perhaps even if you do, you may be tempted to interrupt your reading with fact-checks on Google.
Resist. That is no way to read a novel. As facts go, Mallon is accurate enough, and it really doesn’t matter. This is a political novel, but it’s a story about the limits of human ambition.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the long narrative about the summit in Reykjavik, Iceland, with Mikhail Gorbachev in 1986. No, no, don’t walk away because you think you just can’t follow this. Yes, you can. And there’s so much else going on here.
The story line about a young Republican staffer named Anders Little, who is wrestling “with his own personal confusion” over his sexuality, is worth your slogging through the negotiations. He is a fictional character, but he takes us into the world of genuine despair born of Reagan’s failure to adequately address the AIDS crisis. On Air Force One, the click of a White House photographer’s camera triggers Little’s hand to fly to the breast pocket that holds a note from his lover. It’s a brief moment of anxiety that captures the terror of that time in our history.
Speaking of Reagan — he is, after all, the guy pictured strolling off the book cover’s edge — we know him only through the jumble of conflicting observations from those around him. Until the epilogue, dated Aug. 12, 1996. Reagan is in bed watching the television screen. He recognizes the woman talking as the nice lady who sleeps with him. Some faces in the crowd are fleetingly familiar, but he makes no sense of her speech about the “very long goodbye.”
We may not know Ronald Reagan any better by the end, but we may be tempted to think we know a whole lot more about many others. The challenge after reading this book is to remind ourselves never to recount the tales between its pages as true.
This is fiction, remember.
Or is it?
Wicked good, that Thomas Mallon.
Connie Schultz is a nationally syndicated columnist and the author of “. . . And His Lovely Wife.”
On Sept. 27 at 5 p.m., Thomas Mallon will be at Politics & Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW.
Pantheon. 462 pp. $27.95