Tuesday, March 29, 2016

FINALE by Thomas Mallon (fic)

Subtitle: A Novel of the Reagan Years.
Finale was chosen as one of the best books of 2015 by the New York Times.  Mallon, who often writes for the New Yorker, has this time chosen to write about the last two years of Ronald Reagan's Presidency.  Set in 1986 and 87, his popularity waning, his energy flagging, and his mind wandering, we can see hints of the Alzheimer's disease which eventually felled him.  It is tragic that Margaret Thatcher, Reagan's great and loyal friend, was also at the end of her years beset with the same malady.

Mallon writes in much the same style as his previous political novel, "Watergate."  Like "Watergate" Mallon mixes many real and familiar names with a few fictional characters who move the story along.  He writes in a plain style with the setting secondary to the characters whose minds he skillfully inhabits.  The main characters will be familiar to those who followed the politics of the Reagan era.  Those too young to remember will find the large number of characters and their importance difficult to get around.  Certain names will bring back memories to many readers: William Buckley, Jr., Jeane Kirkpatrick, Jackie Kennedy, Bette Davis (with her acerbic asides), Jimmy Carter, John Hinckley, Christopher Hitchens, Pamela Harriman, Oliver North, and above all Richard Nixon, resurrected and rehabilitated from his Watergate days.  Our guide through the period is a fictional Anders Little who connects all these characters allowing the plot to progress.

This is a good book to read in our current political climate to remind us of a more civilized and polite though bland time in our history.  A time welcome to many after the turbulent Nixon years followed by the Iranian kidnappings in the term of Jimmy Carter.  It is also a reminder that current politicians who claim to be heirs of Reagan are nothing like him at all, and that many of us found him incompetent  and elusive rather than enchanting.

The plot centers around two big news stories of the time, the Iran/Contra scandal along with its attendant money laundering, and the nuclear arms meeting between Reagan and Gorbachev (who seemed thoroughly confused by Reagan's detachment) in Reykjavik. Both incidents turned out to be disastrous to Reagan's popularity.  Most interestingly, Richard Nixon who was such a villain in the Watergate book, was living contentedly in California and very actively involved behind the scenes giving advice to Reagan's advisors.  He has some of the best lines in the book and certainly seems to be thinking more clearly than Reagan's handlers.  Nancy Reagan, lovingly hovers around her husband, filled with anxiety that he will blunder in his diplomacy, no doubt aware on some level that his mind is failing.  By the end of the book, even Nancy wonders who  Reagan really is and whatever can he be thinking behind his vague dismissals of the shape the history of his Presidency is taking.

I enjoyed revisiting the Reagan years, and Mallon is a good guide and spot on in so many of his characterizations.  The book perhaps would not be as enjoyable to those who are not familiar with the many names which inhabit the pages of this novel.

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