Finale: A Novel of the Reagan Years, Thomas Mallon (2015)

Engrossing page-turner novel of contemporary political fiction allowing vivid insight to the critical sequence of recent history that unfolded on the world stage mid way through Reagan’s second term: Reykjavik, Gorbachev, Star Wars, Iran, Contras, AIDS, mid term electio23995211ns.  Ronny and Nancy and the movie stars by their sides, in their past, and in the astrologer’s sky. Sulking brilliant sideshow observations and manipulation by Richard Nixon. Terry Dolan and gay insiders of NCPAC, the NSA, the federal prison, and death by virus. Outsize roles, indeed part of Mallon’s method for character actors like Merv Griffin, Pamela Harriman, many many others. Christopher Hitchens.  Hitch— Mallon’s and our authorial muse here—he swaggered in wherever he pleased and got the story.  Who doesn’t remember following these events by his lights — “Minority Report” in The Nation every two weeks earning his pay in the “high two figures” for Victor Navasky and in the glossy rather more highly compensated scribing he did for Tina Brown every couple months for Vanity Fair , and other high brow mags in USA and UK.  Mallon’s earlier book Watergate (2012) offered the same kind of appealing human level, simplifying pitch on events that have had so much written, and so much will remain to be written. Mallon’s project is that of an imaginative synthesizer. One can see that his research and writing agenda was to spend days with his own memory and journalistic timeframe of 1985-86 and the stacks and stacks of the mostly pathetic, limited, haunted published memoirs of each of these many hundreds of characters.  Think of the related, but absolutely inferior, “real time” narratives that pass as and are sold in large number as “non-fiction” by Bob Woodward.  When historians not yet born approach these events, in search of documents and angles of vision,  as they surely will, Mallon offers a solid road map and entertainment. Perhaps the Reagan-Gorbachev weekend of ultimately successful nuclear diplomacy at Reykjavik is most well handled by Mallon. No doubt the memoirs of Secretary of State George Schultz and of Mikhail Gorbachev inform the fly on the wall account of these talks. President Reagan, it seems,  never did fully understand the real forces at play– as Schultz and Gorbachev demonstrated by eye contact and nods– even as he played the “Star Wars” card to victory– not realizing he was bluffing.  A workable space based missile defense would make the mutually assured destruction (MAD) cold war calculus that made first strike unthinkable– obsolete and unstable. Just as the arms and technology race the mythical shield would have prompted USSR to engage in was avoided by Gorbachev’s startling proposals for vast reductions in warheads.

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