Two Moons, by Thomas Mallon

I have always been intrigued by Mallon’s historical novels, but have read only Henry and Clara, which did disappoint me. This 2000 novel, however, is quite effective. It is a quiet novel, but its youthful romance, its pursuit of scientific evidence in the heavens, and its late 19th century Washington scene are quite effective. The actual year is 1878, when the Capital is still recovering from the Civil War and people are yearning for a brighter future.

This is the story of thirtyish Civil War widow Cynthia May and her love of an ambitious astronomer Hugh Allison. Both are fictional characters. She is a mathematical whiz at the U.S. Navel Observatory, while he is a handsome and ambitious, but physically delicate, astronomer scientist. The author blends their love affair with the lives of real scientists who surround them at the Observatory. And he supplements those lives with the predictions of a presumably fictional astrologer, Mary Costello. This woman advises a powerful senator, the historic Roscoe Conkling of New York, on how the stars might help him beat back reformists who are challenging the party machine. Conkling is a ladies man, and the plot turns when he encounters Cynthia, is fascinated by her, and decides to pursue her.

Cynthia’s own story is a quiet one, not a dramatic one, and yet, as I indicated, effective. For she is both smart and settled into her widowhood—until, that is, she meets Hugh. The reality of their affair is enhanced by the care the author takes to create the hectic daily life of the Observatory, where Mary is called a computer since she deals with mathematical calculations and Hugh tracks the planets through a telescope. What also enlivens this scientific background is the political and personal infighting at the Observatory, climaxing with the desire of most of the scientists there to move their location away from Foggy Bottom, where the fog and the malarial mosquitoes both disrupt their investigation of the skies and endanger their health.

And this effort to move the Observatory is complemented by the political maneuvering in Washington D.C between the Presidency and Congress. Even as Mallon captures the woman’s point of view through Cynthia and Mary, he also captures the political history underlying this novel. Such as the maneuvering by Senator Conkling, for example, in support of President Rutherford B. Hayes, maneuvers which are not always clear to the average reader.

The scientists at the Observatory spend their time searching the skies, studying the planets (the discovery of two moons around Mars is made during this period), and seeking to identify new heavenly bodies through their telescopes. But while these efforts are directed toward reaching out and discovering unknown civilizations across the heavens, Hugh Allison thinks about knowledge flowing in the opposite direction. He wants to send out a message to those possible civilizations and make them aware of we fellow beings here on earth.

And so Hugh seeks to shine a powerful light into the sky that will draw attention toward the planet earth. As he says, he wants the speed of light to carry through the universe a message that will be found long after he himself is gone.

Much of the novel focuses on his efforts, aided by Cynthia, to obtain a machine from a fellow scientist in France that emits the powerful light that he needs. Senator Conkling enters the scene here because Cynthia realizes that, after their casual encounter and his efforts to seek an amorous relationship, she needs to develop that relationship. Because he has the power and influence to help them bring over the searchlight from France and pass it through customs.

Hugh’s plan is to take his searchlight to the top of the then unfinished Washington Monument, and to shine its beam into the sky. This effort represents the climax of the novel, after which their story eases into a quiet ending. Meaning that there is no dramatic finale, no earthshaking discovery. What follows is merely a New York Blizzard ten years later that allows the author to settle the fortunes of his main characters.

We have glimpsed in this novel a moment if imaginary history, and a moment of imaginary reality. And it is a reality both highly believable, and symbolic of its times. It reflects, as the Washington Post says, “a quaint kind of homegrown ambition and optimism that is uniquely American.”

Yes, one wants to seek out more of Mallon’s work. In his historical fictions, he brings together the humanity of his characters, whether historic or fictional. And then, as he captures the sense of their times, he lets a quiet moment of history reverberate into our future. (November, 2018)

Watergate, by Thomas Mallon

This 2012 work is another example of history as a novel. Mallon put extensive research into this work, surely taking advantage of the many works written by the participants. The result is “we are there”—in terms of the individual actions and the conversations of a multitude of characters. And these actions and conversations are entirely believable, even as they verge on the scandalous. Indeed, on many pages, with its lying and its cheating in both its politics and its love affairs, this novel often reads like the inside scoop of a gossip columnist.

The novel is highly readable, of course, and entertaining, but it is also quite confusing. First, because there are so many characters. Even the author seems to realize this, as he lists 112 “players” over four pages before the story begins. And such a multitude makes it next-to-impossible for the reader to separate the main characters clearly, to grasp their relationship to one another and to the events, whenever they reappear on the scene.

Second, because even as we follow this story from the inside, we must be a student of Watergate history to grasp how these events reflect what is going on in the outside world, in that world of Woodward, Bernstein, Deep Throat, Jaworski, Cox, Sirica, and the American public.

And third, because, early on, the characters are reacting to events that are not put fully into context, and over which they themselves have no control. Moreover, they are reacting rather than causing others to react to them.

Mallon calls this first half, “Hide,” as the participants seek to conceal both their own involvement and the president’s. But the reader keeps asking, what is really going on here? Why are these people doing what they are doing? What is the connection among their various actions?

The second half Mallon calls, “Seek.” This is not only the government seeking to learn its responsibility under the law, it is also the participants seeking to learn what the government knows about their actions. These participants are now more active than reactive, and do become more interesting as characters.

What distinguishes this book is that Mallon has put himself into the minds of all his major characters, beginning with President Nixon and his wife Pat. But they also include Howard Hunt, Rose Mary Woods, and Elliot Richardson. And especially they include Alice Roosevelt Longworth, the elderly daughter of Theodore Roosevelt, whose presence adds considerable color and even humor, but whose function beyond that was never clear to me.

Even more significant a character is Fred LaRue, deputy director of the Committee to Re-elect the President. His presence is justified for two reasons. First, he was in regular contact with the Watergate break-in team: Liddy, Magruder, Colson, McCord, and Bernard Barker. He is also the one who delivers the hush money to the burglars. And second, Mallon uses LaRue’s personal story, separate from the Watergate break-in, a story about his responsibility for the death of his father—as a through-story to tie the novel together.

LaRue has an affair with a Clarine Lander, an attractive seductress and a Democrat, who is apparently one of the three fictional characters in the book. It is she who obtains for him the official file concerning his father’s death, and it is her nickname (given to her by Mallon) that seems to set off the actual break-in of chairman Larry O’Brien’s office at the Democratic National Committee headquarters. This revelation is a bit of irony that leads the reader to smile, but it is an irony manufactured by the author. It cannot for me tie together his entire novel. Yet Mallon seems to have intended this personal story to do so, for he says in his Acknowledgements that of all the historic characters, “LaRue’s life has undergone the greatest degree of fictionalization.”           

One other fictional character (because his name in the list of “players” is also written in quotation marks) is Tom Garahan, supposedly a retired lawyer. He is introduced as a boy friend of Pat Nixon. I just do not understand why Mallon has created him. It is as if the author thinks that Pat Nixon must have needed an emotional relief from a cold, detached Nixon. Yes, he is careful to not to put them into bed, not to make them lovers, but it does not help me to understand Pat better, to make her a more real or more sympathetic person, or even to explain why she sticks with her husband.

On the other hand, Mallon does impugn the integrity of Elliott Richardson, as an ambitious snob, and Martha Mitchell, as a shrew—with her husband, the former attorney general, subservient to her. On Richardson, however, little is made of the “Saturday night massacre,” of which he was a dramatic victim.

Mallon also speculates on two Watergate questions for which there have been no clear answers. First, he suggests that it was Rose Mary Woods who did erase the 19 minutes of tape, not because it revealed anything significant about the cover-up but because she did not want to reveal to the public a few irrelevant personal comments her boss was making about others. And, second, he repeats as a reason for the break-in that the Republicans wanted to find evidence that Castro’s Cuba was contributing to the Democratic campaign.

Overall, this work did not convey what I expected. It is not a story of the break-in, how it was detected, the specific efforts to cover it up, the impact on the public of Woodward and Bernstein’s series, the development of the government’s case, the efforts by the defense lawyers, the various trials, the tightening noose around the White House, and Nixon’s final decision to resign. There are elements of these present, but not in a cause and effect sequence that helps one to understand the Watergate story as seen from the inside. Indeed, some of the major developments that would interest me occur offstage, and then our characters react to them.

What Mallon does here is suggest the atmosphere that followed the discovery of the break-in. How did these individuals react, and what does it reveal of their character? How organized were they, and how did their actions relate to each other? What does the entire operation reveal about how Washington works? How cynical, how selfish, how pragmatic, how venal, how defensive, how clever, how loyal, how self-pitying were these elected and appointed individuals?

But I question whether this is the purpose of a novel. Is it not to explore character? Rather than a society—although many critics will defend this, and cite precedents. Nixon and LaRue are the candidates here for a deeper portrait, and Mallon is sympathetic to both. Nixon, especially, is a character rather than the usual caricature. There is even a moment when he worries that the phrase “expletive deleted” will suggest far vulgar language than what he actually used. But he never becomes a tragic victim, which a new Shakespeare of the 22nd century might one day create from this situation.

LaRue is a richer character, a shy man from Mississippi who is yearning to return. And he is uncomfortable with his Watergate role. But that role remains separate from the personal family issue that confronts him. And as the reader learns the truth of that issue (or is it merely Mallon’s speculation?) but he himself apparently does not, this does not quite produce a reader’s identification with him that the author seems to have intended.

To sum up, this novel gets too close to the players for me, which clouds any perspective on the overall situation and how these characters interfaced with it. This was a dramatic moment in 20th century American history, and yet there is no sense of that drama. These individuals are too wrapped up in their own fate to be sympathetic, and there are too many of them. There is no North Star among them whom the reader can latch on to. LaRue is merely a spinning planet, and we jump around too much among the others.

I suspect that Mallon would reply: I did not want or intend to write your kind of Watergate novel; I intended to write this one. Because all of these disperate characters were fascinating to me. And because I wanted to show both the humanity and the failings of this particular group of people who were operating inside the Nixon administration at this key moment in history.

Certainly, Mallon takes on interesting subjects; but, as with Henry and Clara, I have ended up disappointed. (June, 2014)