Telling it like it might have been…


I’m not sure why Thomas Mallon‘s work isn’t better known the the UK. His books don’t have British editions although they’re published by Random House and are of course easily available via online bookshops. Maybe his subjects, American politics and small town American life, don’t strike a chord here. Whatever the reason, it’s a shame, because Mallon is a great writer.

I’m currently on my third Mallon book, Dewey Defeats Truman (and no, it’s not an alternative reality, Dewey loses in the book too, it’s a reference to the conviction of pretty much everyone in 1948 that Dewey was going to win and to possibly the world’s most famous incorrect newspaper headline). The book tells the story of the inhabitants of Dewey’s home town of Owosso, Michigan, during the 1948 Presidential election as they plan for his inevitable victory and the prosperity that will come to them as a result. Well, some of them. At least one of them is hoping an old secret won’t be revealed. But I won’t spoil the plot for you. Mallon weaves his fictional plot around the real events of the election and gives us the hopes, fears and loves of the townspeople. It’s gentle and affectionate and beautifully written.

My first Mallon book was Watergate, in which he fictionalises the events leading up to Nixon’s resignation. Most of the characters are real but he invents one or two figures to help drive the narrative. But on the whole he doesn’t need to make people and events up, the real thing was stranger than fiction. The key figure in the book is Pat Nixon, Nixon’s wife, and Mallon truly brings her to life as she watches her husband fall and holds on to her own personal tragedies.

The Nixons carry over into Mallon’s latest book, Finale, which picks up the Reagan years, principally Iran Contra and the Reykjavik summit. Mallon makes Nixon the eminence grise, sending messages via intermediaries to various key figures in Reagan’s administration. As with Pat Nixon in Watergate, Nancy Reagan is a key player in Finale, as she copes with her growing realisation of Reagan’s impending descent into dementia and organises his life with the help of astrology. Finale also brings back some characters from Dewey Defeats Truman and shows us where they’ve reached at the other end of their lives.

For anyone with even a passing interest in American history and politics, Mallon’s books are a fascinating fictional view of key events from the recent past. He writes elegant prose and tells a good story. His portrayal of the main historical figures make you wish that they really had been like that while leaving you with the suspicion that, as with all fiction, the reality was somehow less inspiring. Except in the case of Watergate perhaps.

As well as not being in print in the UK, Mallon’s books are for some reason not available in many e-book formats either. Don’t let that put you off – order them from the online bookshop of your choice, sit back and enjoy.