Thomas Mallon is quick to admit that his latest release, “Fellow Travelers,” doesn’t quite provide the “relief from the self” that writing historical fiction typically affords him. [IMGCAP(1)]
Mainly set in 1950s Washington, D.C., during and after Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s (R-Wis.) anti-communist witch hunts, Mallon’s novel follows the trajectory of the dashing Hawkins Fuller, a self-serving State Department official, and his conflicted young lover, Tim Laughlin, a Senate aide, as their surreptitious affair plays out in a milieu roiled by Congressional hearings and government purgings of those believed to be “pink or lavender.”
Mallon says when he sat down to give Laughlin his “false résumé,” the first thing he did was write down the character’s birthdate — Nov. 2, 1931 — which just happens to be the same day two decades later that he was born. Like Laughlin, the 55-year-old Mallon hails from an Irish-Catholic family in New York, is a relatively conservative anti-communist and is gay.
“I realized on some level I was writing a book about what my life might have been like if I’d been born 20 years earlier,” says Mallon, the author of seven novels including “Dewey Defeats Truman” and the Jazz-age “Bandbox.”
What he discovered was rather “chilling,” Mallon says.
In researching “Fellow Travelers,” Mallon spent hours perusing microfilmed copies of old Washington Evening Star newspapers and was surprised at “the absolute invisibility of gay people, the absolute shuttered qualities of their lives — it’s sometimes difficult to remember … how recent all that was.”
“I wanted to show the tension that might provoke in somebody,” says Mallon, and Mallon’s protagonists find different ways of dealing with their unease. The reckless Fuller stops at little to maintain his position and eventually marries a well-heeled young socialite, while Laughlin seeks refuge in his faith (with mixed results) and briefly enters the Army.
When it came to re-creating the Senate proceedings of the era, Mallon turned to officials at the Senate Historical Office for transcripts of both the executive sessions of McCarthy’s Senate permanent subcommittee on investigations and the Army-McCarthy hearings. He also spent time discussing the “culture of the Senate” with Richard Baker, the Senate Historian.
While much of the Senators’ dialogue is made up, don’t be surprised if a few lines sound familiar. For instance, a scene about McCarthy’s wedding at St. Matthew’s Cathedral includes a cameo appearance by Vice President Richard Nixon declaring McCarthy’s bride Jean Kerr “lovely, but then I never met a bride who wasn’t!”
“That’s an actual quote I found in a newspaper,” Mallon says.
Mallon’s artistic license extends to a mysterious subplot he invents involving McCarthy and his notoriously closeted Chief Counsel Roy Cohn, who was known for the power he wielded over the Wisconsin lawmaker. It was Cohn, after all, who the Army charged had pushed for special privileges for David Schine — a young private and former McCarthy aide with whom Cohn was apparently infatuated. Cohn allegedly threatened “to wreck” the Army over the issue, and McCarthy went on the attack, accusing the Army of using Schine as a “hostage” to halt his probes into communist infiltration of the military. Televised hearings were held to investigate.
“People thought maybe Cohn had something on McCarthy. … I invent a different scenario where David Schine has something on McCarthy,” says Mallon.
While Mallon derides McCarthy for making “anti-communism disrespectable,” he sees hypocrisy in those who blame the late Senator or his fellow Republicans for the homophobia of the period.
“The weeding out of homosexuals from the State Department and places like that was carried out with bipartisan gusto in those days,” asserts Mallon, who singles out David Johnson’s “The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government” as helpful in informing his novel.
Aside from the historical lessons in “Fellow Travelers,” Washington readers will relate to many of the backdrops invoked in the book — from the Senate Office Building (now the Russell Senate Office Building) to the Occidental Grill to the rooftop of the Hotel Washington to the Old Post Office Tower and the Trover Shop bookstore on Capitol Hill. (Mallon would like to see the book made into a movie and quips that he’s told his agent to “Tell them it’s ‘Brokeback Mountain’ meets ‘Good Night, and Good Luck.’”)
Mallon, who grew up on Long Island and has lived in the District since 2003, even found inspiration in his Foggy Bottom home. He set some of the (sometimes graphic) love scenes between Fuller and Laughlin in the castle-like turret room that crowns the 19th-century, yellow brick house he shares with his partner, Bill Bodenschatz.
A one-time literary editor at GQ who now writes reviews for the New Yorker, Mallon got his start as a critic for the conservative National Review. He “helped out” on the autobiography of former Vice President Dan Quayle (with whom he is still close) and has served as a Bush administration appointee to the National Council on the Humanities. A former deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Mallon considers himself a supporter of President Bush.
As for Mallon’s next project?
The prolific writer is already back at work, finishing a book on the “world’s greatest letters and letter writing.” He’ll be teaching creative writing part-time this fall at The George Washington University and is also kicking around ideas for yet another historical undertaking.
“I’ve been very interested in the possibility of setting a book in New Orleans in the 1930s,” he says.
So are we looking at a return to the Big Easy à la Robert Penn Warren’s “All the King’s Men?”
Not quite, says Mallon, adding that it would likely take place “just after” Huey P. Long’s dictatorial reign. “Certainly his ghost would be hovering over the thing.”
Thomas Mallon will read and sign copies of “Fellow Travelers” at 7 p.m. May 17 at Chapters Literary Bookstore, 445 11th St. NW.