THOMAS MALLON is one of our most graceful and gracious novelists, probing his characters’ psyches with a tenderness that neither clouds his sharp-eyed comprehension of their faults nor muddies some of the most lucid prose in contemporary American literature. After two semi-autobiographical apprentice works, he found his niche in 1994 with “Henry and Clara,” a fictional portrait of the couple who shared President Lincoln’s box at Ford’s Theatre on the night of his assassination. All of Mallon’s subsequent novels take place in the past, a strategy that showcases his nice precision with period detail and enables him to address political and personal concerns at a slight distance that seems congenial to him as an artist. The sunny Midwestern warmth of “Dewey Defeats Truman,” the post-Civil War somberness of “Two Moons” and the Jazz Age raffishness of “Bandbox” ring true to their epochs and give individual shadings to the author’s perennial themes: the conflict between our public and private selves, the effect of historic events on people’s lives, the madness of love.
Mallon addresses those themes with galvanizing passion in “Fellow Travelers,” his best book yet. Set in Washington, D.C., in the 1950s, it pairs the story of a tragic love affair with a blistering depiction of sexual hypocrisy and political opportunism. “What’s his problem? Pink or lavender?” asks Hawkins Fuller on learning of a State Department colleague’s dismissal. In a bureaucracy obsessed with security risks, it isn’t enough to be spotlessly anticommunist; you must be blamelessly heterosexual too -- or able to cover your tracks, like Fuller. Hedonistic and cynical, he couldn’t be a worse partner for Tim Laughlin, a devout Catholic just out of Fordham who stops going to confession (but not to church) after falling into bed with Fuller. Tim can’t repent of his actions, though he believes they’re sinful. He’s incapable of the casual duplicity that lets Fuller pass the dreaded “Miscellaneous M Unit’s” lie-detector test, denying homosexual tendencies while thinking of the gay bars he’s frequented and the many men he’s slept with.
Mary Johnson, Mallon’s third protagonist, shares Fuller’s “fatal self-sufficiency ... a conviction that to accept one man or life was to forfeit another.” But she also shares Tim’s discomfort with a two-faced society in which everyone knows that people say one thing and do something else (a point underscored by frequent references to rumors about the covert proclivities of such public figures as Roy Cohn, J. Edgar Hoover and various “lifelong bachelors” in the Senate). Mary understands both men well enough to know that their relationship will destroy Tim, and she’s close enough to both to accept Fuller’s charge that she be the instrument of their final break.
We know -- from a prologue that shows Fuller learning of Tim’s death in 1991 -- that their romance is doomed. What matters is Mallon’s sensitive, acute examination of this disastrous conjunction, which inflicts permanent wounds even as it brings Tim more joy than he has ever known and takes Fuller as close as he is capable of getting to loving another human being. The fairly graphic sex scenes are a surprise from this normally circumspect author, but they reveal aspects of the characters we could not have seen in any other context. They also give “Fellow Travelers” an edge quite different from the sorrowful poignancy with which Mallon portrayed equally ill-starred unions in “Henry and Clara” and “Two Moons.” The brilliant, horrifying passage that traces Fuller’s motives for his deliberately unforgivable betrayal is at once convincing and unbearably sad.
Mallon invests Washington’s toxic political scene with the same complexity. Tim works for Sen. Charles Potter (R.-Mich.), who’s appalled by Joseph McCarthy’s sleazy tactics and even more by Roy Cohn’s thuggishness but takes a public stand only against Cohn and only when he’s manipulated into it by Tommy McIntyre, a liberal political operative as ruthless as any Red-baiter. (Interactions of the fictional McIntyre with the late Sen. Potter, who served from 1952 to 1958 and did indeed clash with McCarthy, bear out the author’s note in his acknowledgments that he has taken “more than my usual license with historical figures.”) Tim is revolted by McIntyre’s attempts to draw him into “the world of who had what on whom.” An avid consumer of press reports and eyewitness testimony about atrocities in Korea and Eastern Europe, Tim sees the Cold War as a battle between good and evil; the Army-McCarthy hearings confront him with “the conflict between sordid means and great ends.” No wonder this fervent anticommunist forms an unlikely friendship with left-wing Nation correspondent Kenneth Woodforde. Both are idealists fated to be disillusioned by the 1956 Hungarian uprising, Tim because the U.S. fails to aid the anti-Soviet martyrs, Woodforde because he’s forced to admit that "[Communists] in power are about as likely to change as your One True Church.”
The author keeps his own political convictions to himself. (They’re suggested, however, by the fact that his nastiest creation is a vicious, ultra-conservative gay-basher and by occasional asides, like that of the reporter who notes that McCarthy “prefer[s] to display the timid and guilty-looking” at public hearings.) Mallon is not an ideologically driven writer; political issues are his springboard for questions of individual integrity. We might take Mary, the novel’s most adult character, as his stand-in. She quietly uses her affluent father’s connections to help a State Department co-worker fired for “lavender” inclinations and works behind the scenes in Congress to stymie McCarthyite legislation -- even as one of her several lovers, the son of Estonian immigrants, bitterly reminds her of the repression in the Soviet sphere. It’s telling that this honorable woman eventually leaves Washington, albeit for personal reasons. Rueful maturity and large-minded sympathy are not qualities that help you navigate a city gripped by political hysteria.
They are, however, among the salient qualities of “Fellow Travelers,” a work of art that tempers judgment with compassion, as it closes with the careless, destructive Hawkins Fuller receiving one last memento of the man he wronged: a sketch by Tim of the house that was their hideaway, with a note at the bottom to Mary: “Let him know I was happy enough. Make it easy on him.”