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"Fellow Travelers" | Gay in D.C. during the height of McCarthyism
Seattle Times book critic
by Thomas Mallon
Pantheon, 356 pp., $25
The time is the 1950s. The place is Washington, D.C. And the question of the moment is: "Pink or lavender?"
In his new historical novel, Thomas Mallon ("Henry and Clara," "Bandbox") trains his sharp eye on the era when Wisconsin Sen. Joe McCarthy and others launched crusades to root out every last Communist sympathizer ("pink") or homosexual ("lavender") from the U.S. government and Army. Careers were at stake, scandal was in the air, and the Cold War kept threatening to get thermonuclear hot.
Against this background young Timothy Laughlin, a summer-hire reporter at the Washington Star, meets suave civil servant Hawkins Fuller — who promptly points Tim toward a job as a speechwriter for Sen. Charles Potter of Michigan.
The job tip is mostly Hawk's way of getting Tim into bed with him, and it works. But the spectacle is a bit like watching Count Dracula have his way with a figure out of Norman Rockwell.
You tremble for Tim — and you're mesmerized by Hawk, as you would be by any bird of prey in artful predatory action.
Still, this secretive, sporadic affair isn't a simple collision of innocence and worldliness. Tim, frankly ardent in his desire for handsome Hawk, is also a devout Catholic and a fierce anti-Communist who believes in Sen. McCarthy's crusade. Hawk, the sophisticate, has his doubts about the whole business and is teasingly paternal in his schooling of Tim on "the algebra of blackmail" as it affects the Army-McCarthy hearings and the efforts to purge the government of all its gay employees.
Soon everyone in "Fellow Travelers" is mired in a game of "who had what on whom." Paranoia and intrigue rule the day. And each main character in the book reaches a point where personal conscience and self-preservation come into conflict.
Seven years ago, Mallon published a memorable Washington novel, "Two Moons," set during the Rutherford Hayes administration and focusing on a Civil War widow who finds unlikely employment at the U.S. Naval Observatory.
"Fellow Travelers" rivals "Moons" in ambition and complexity. Its central story emerges through a welter of period references, half-forgotten political skirmishes and long-forgotten names. Many of those references — for instance, one to a Republican senator who looks "a little like the actor Lyle Talbot" — will have readers Googling to see who the heck Mallon's characters are talking about. And some of the historical tidbits feel too baldly inserted into the narrative.
Yet the copious detail — including bizarre interrogation procedures for government workers suspected of being gay — reveals as much as it obscures. Mallon is especially good at bringing to life the decade's manners, taboos, technological wonders (the first air conditioners!) and medical wisdom (doctors recommending cigarettes to calm the nerves of pregnant women!).
He also surrounds Tim and Hawk with characters as contradiction-filled as they are. Among them: Kenneth Woodforde, a reporter for The Nation who strikes up an unexpected friendship with Tim despite their sexual and political differences, and Mary Johnson, a go-between/confidante to both Tim and Hawk, who seems a grounded personality but is no better at following society's rules than they are.
Then there are the figures from the archives — including Potter, McCarthy and Roy Cohn — who breeze, sometimes not so casually, through the book's pages.
As Tim and Hawk's relationship torques its way through varied and volatile phases, however, it increasingly dominates the novel. We get a glimpse at the start of the book of where they'll end up: Tim dead before he's 60, Hawk a dashing (and married) second-tier diplomat in the foreign service. But even this information is misleading.
Hawk may be the one with the wicked wit ("Stay away from reporters. They dress worse than McCarthy") and the Everest-high ego ("I am wonderful"). But Tim, going gullibly from ecstasy to agony and back again, is stronger than he looks — and proves just as captivating a character, even as Hawk betrays him on every possible level.
Mallon, with recurring phrases and images, makes a music of their inequality that gives the book its structure, its heart and, by its last pages, an oddly wrenching serenity.
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org.
He has been the Seattle Times book critic since 1998 and has published four novels.
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company