“Because he was simpler than Nixon in some ways, more sentimental than Nixon, [Reagan] allowed himself to imagine a world without the Soviet Union. Which Nixon’s mind—much more brilliant than Reagan’s—couldn’t quite bring himself to do,” says Thomas Mallon, author of the new novel, Finale.
Mallon is a rare novelist who actually lives in Washington, D.C. and writes about politics and power. He spoke to Reason’s Nick Gillespie about his phenomenal new novel Finale, which follows the adventures of a fictional National Security Council advisor making his way through the scandal-ridden final years of the Reagan administration.
Late 1986 brought America a host of new social ills: the crack epidemic, a surge in homelessness, and AIDS. The Reykjavik Summit between Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev was dubbed a disaster and the Iran-Contra scandal was beginning to flare up. Through it all, President Reagan was becoming increasingly remote, prompting critics to wonder if the 75-year-old president’s mind was slipping a few gears.
Enter Anders Little, obsessive and troubled, coming to terms with his homosexuality amid a staunchly conservative administration. Little makes his way through a Who’s Who of the Washington power elite. Indeed, Mallon’s capital city is a Fellini-esque carnival of ambition back-biting, featuring an up-and-coming Christopher Hitchens; the always-calculating Pamela Harriman, the dowager queen of the Democratic Party’s government in exile; Republican fundraiser Terry Dolan, who is dying of AIDs; and Nancy Reagan, ever protective of her husband’s reputation during his last days in office. Even talk-show host Merv Griffin pops in to update the First Lady on the latest Hollywood gossip.
In a wide-ranging conversation, Mallon jumps from his novel of 1980s’ glastnostalgia to discuss how our identities shape our deepest political convictions and vice versa. Mallon, like his protagonist Anders Little, is a gay conservative. Born in 1951, he says his belief in American exceptionalism is rooted in his Irish-Catholic upbringing on Long Island. “We considered ourselves super-Americans in a way, because we were militantly anti-communist. We were not squishily so like liberal protestants.” He adds, “Belief in America was second only to belief in God.”
The former literary editor of GQ and the widely praised author of a shelf of novels (including Dewey Defeats Truman and Watergate: a Novel) and nonfiction (Mrs. Paine’s Garage and the Murder of John F. Kennedy, Stolen Words: Forays into the Origins and Ravages of Plagiarism), Mallon also explains why “95 percent of the writers” he knows are liberal Democrats (and why that bothers him), how social media and memoir are killing the novel, and why he’s disappointed in writers such as Jonathan Franzen.
About 40 minutes.
Produced by Todd Krainin. Interview by Nick Gillespie. Cameras by Josh Swain and Krainin.
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