The subtitle of Thomas Mallon’s new book, Finale: A Novel of the Reagan Years, is a bit misleading. All but two chapters, the prologue and a sweetly sad epilogue, are set in the final months of a single Reagan year, 1986. But this period saw the president at his best (at least, according to his admirers), with his conduct at the Reykjavik summit, and at his worst, with the unraveling of the Iran-Contra scandal.
In both instances he remained frustratingly inscrutable, a “deeply shallow man,” to quote one world leader’s oxymoronic assessment, who “seemed all at once very close and far away.” Mallon, an old hand at free indirect style, keeps his distance from this affable sphinx. Only at the end, when Reagan is in the throes of Alzheimer’s, does he inhabit the great man’s now diminished point of view. Better to imagine what others thought of him, as Gore Vidal did with Lincoln, an exercise in subjectivity that reveals more about the observer than the observed.
One such eyewitness to history is Anders Little, a staffer on the National Security Council. With the tacit approval of his superiors, he serves as Richard Nixon’s conduit to the White House. Despite his disgrace, the former president is still trying to influence events, if only as an eminence grise (or greasy eminence).
But Anders, struggling with a mid-life sexual awakening, finds himself peripherally involved in Iran-Contra after being mistaken for a party favor by a coterie of self-loathing Republican gays.
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Anders accompanies Reagan to Reykjavik, the heart of the novel, a consummate set piece that alternates seamlessly between the serious and the comic (as the fate of the world is decided upstairs, KGB agents watch Tom and Jerry cartoons below).
Iceland’s capital hosted the Fischer-Spassky chess match. Fourteen years later, Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev meet to play a much higher-staked game. The Soviet leader’s opening gambit surprises the U.S. delegation: he proposes the virtual elimination of nuclear weapons in exchange for the abandonment of the Star Wars program. Clinging to his Hollywood-inspired fantasy of shooting missiles out of the sky with lasers, Reagan rejects the allure of utopia.
The president’s obstinacy may have provided the impetus for Gorbachev to speed up reforms. But Mallon doesn’t overlook less appealing aspects of his administration, such as the passage of mandatory minimum sentencing laws for drug users, Nancy Reagan’s pet issue.
The first lady is treated sympathetically but honestly. Mallon pokes fun at her addiction to astrology (apparently she couldn’t just say no to the stars). And with her dysfunctional family dynamics and one-percenter friends (champagne wishes and caviar dreams, indeed), she should have made a cameo appearance on Dynasty instead of Diff’rent Strokes.
But beneath the queenly demeanor lies a fiercely dedicated wife still traumatized by the attempt on Reagan’s life (Mallon drops in on John Hinckley now and then, to see how the would-be assassin is deceiving his keepers).
Smacking his acerbic lips at the American feast of folly is British journalist Christopher Hitchens, who assumes the chorus-like role that Alice Roosevelt Longworth played in Mallon’s last novel, Watergate. Skeptical of power, he is “The Hitch” liberals once adored, not the Iraq war apologist who praised George W. Bush’s enhanced leadership techniques. Mallon knew him well, and he captures his late friend’s charmingly combative personality with eerie exactitude.
When you read the whip-smart lines Mallon wrote for him, you can almost hear the famously deep, silky voice. As Hitchens hunts down Iran-Contra leads, he pays the bills with a Vanity Fair article on Pamela Harriman, a wealthy ex-courtesan who hopes to buy respectability with contributions to Democratic candidates, including Bob Graham, whose Florida senate race against Paula Hawkins is mentioned several times.
The Harriman scenes are fine. It may be a cliché, but Mallon truly is incapable of composing a bad sentence. In fact, one of this novel’s many joys is the beauty and elegance of its prose. But after awhile, I grew tired of Harriman’s social climbing, a Mrs. Warren on the prowl for Lady Bracknell status. Mallon is a novelist, not a historian. But he reminds us that history is not about facts and dates; it’s the greatest story ever told.
Ariel Gonzalez teaches English at Miami Dade College.