Finale – A Novel of the Reagan Years

Political junkies, rejoice! Thomas Mallon has written another novel fictionalizing American politics. I recently reviewed Watergate for “Bookin’ with Sunny,” which blends fact and fiction to tell the story of Richard Nixon’s final year as president. Now I’ve just read Finale, which also blends fact and fiction, this time to tell the story of Ronald Reagan’s sixth year as president, 1986, when his presidency began to drift and run aground. Mallon follows two key events in Finale. One is Reagan’s nuclear disarmament summit meeting in Iceland with Russia’s Premier Gorbachev, which began with high hopes and accomplished absolutely nothing. The other is the onset of what would soon be called the Iran-Contra Affair, a National Security Council intrigue that would appear sleazier with every revelation.

Mallon’s strategy is to let his reader inside the minds of his characters. Some are major participants in the making of history, while others are peripheral. Most of them actually existed, but a small handful are entirely fictional. Mallon places his creations into historical circumstances simply to further the political intricacies. For those men and women we recognize, we read some of their thoughts replicated accurately, while other notions are imagined in context. For those characters who are wholly fictional, Mallon generates believable exchanges with those who were really there.

Anders Little performs the protagonist’s role at the fictional center of Finale. An up-and-coming (and uptight) young NeoCon, he serves in part as Richard Nixon’s not-so-secret NSC mole and in part as a naïf who slowly is realizing the depth of the shenanigans surrounding Iran-Contra. Present at many key junctions, he is privy to schemes that could topple Reagan’s presidency if the secrets came to light.

Much more fun than Anders and his fictional friends are the real operators behind the scenes. Mallon is at his best when portraying political in-fighting and one-upmanship. Some of my favorite Finale scenes occurred inside Nancy Reagan’s head when, posing at various solemn functions, her mind wanders and she says to herself whatever cutting remark she cannot say aloud. Equally bitchy and fun is Averell Harriman’s widow, Pamela. A mobile cast of other feisty women come and go, too, glamorous figures like Kitty Carlyle Hart and not-so-glamorous intellects like Jeane Kirkpatrick. Every one of them is opinionated, and often nasty.

Mallon doesn’t, however, reserve his sharp tongue for women only. Christopher Hitchens is given a major role as a journalist so hungry for a story that he will stop at nothing short of libel. His exchanges with the other characters are both deft and penetrating. Many, many political males appear as well, often skewered with a single line or two. Bob Dole, Jerry Ford, Patrick Moynihan, a stiff young Al Gore, and dozens more. Even Richard Nixon comes back from Watergate, operating from afar but ever the operator, trying urgently to get Reagan’s attention. Ronald Reagan, of course, is the most enigmatic character of all. No one can understand his inattention, his nonchalance, but no one dares speculate aloud about what might or might not be going on in his mind.

Like its predecessors, Finale is a long and intricate novel. Filled with minutiae, it nonetheless shows a sweep of history, one seen inside the drawing-room, the cocktail party, the late-hours night-cap, the fundraiser, the solemn dinner of state. Mallon’s book is a marvelous treat for political junkies, especially for those who already know the basic outlines of the times. Here is a lively step inside the restrictive expectations of protocol. Here is the cattiness, the vindictiveness, the arcane maneuverings we all imagine occurring behind the political scenes.

Also available by Thomas Mallon: Henry and Clara; Mrs. Paine’s Garage; Bandbox; Stolen Words; A Book of One’s Own; Watergate; Dewey Defeats Truman; Yours Ever, People and their Letters; Two Moons; Aurora 7; In Fact.

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