For those readers who have lived through the Reagan years, Finale, A Novel of the Reagan Years by Thomas Mallon will almost seem more heavily weighted towards history than historical fiction. We see the prime actors of the Reagan years as they try to negotiate an arms control agreement and an acceptance on the part of the Soviets of “Star Wars.” We revisit the Iran-Contra scandal that threatened the survival of the Reagan Presidency. These events are a matter of historical record. But when we see world events played out through the interactions of the personalities involved, we realize that this is very well written historical fiction. This is one of the books I would give more than five stars to if I could do so.
Even supporters at that time of Reagan, such as myself, realized that there were some strange, unprecedented things going on as far as the running of the Reagan administration. Even supporters made fun of a President so calm that he fell asleep in meetings when he became bored. We were amazed at the power of Nancy Reagan who appeared ruthless and Machiavellian when demanding staff changes in the Presidential Cabinet. Yet Nancy placed great trust in one specific astrologer who became important in scheduling Presidential trips and meetings. How this common knowledge was received by foreign leaders is not explored.
As Mallon creates dialogue between characters, the fictional part become an “of course” moment. Nancy may have worried about Ronnie eating popcorn with the crew working on a presidential TV appearance but her musings can only be known to the fiction writer. That this is fiction is noted by the author in the acknowledgments section with the following:
“This is perhaps as good a place as any to repeat what I said in a note to a previous novel: “I have operated along the always sliding scale of historical fiction. The text contains deviations from fact that some readers will regard as unpardonable and others will deem unworthy of notice. But this remains a work of fiction, not history.”
It is a good idea to start with a quick review of the Cast of Characters. This is approximately eleven pages long and Mallon helpfully puts totally fictional character names in quotation marks. I counted only eight fictional characters which fill less than one page. This leaves more than ten pages of historical characters and even those of us who lived through these years can profit from a quick review. Mallon examines the personalities and public records of the historical characters and uses his fictional characters as allies in making transitions and moving the story forward.
There is a love story; many readers might think there are two. The marriage of Ronald Reagan and Nancy Davis (Reagan) has frequently been portrayed in the popular press as a true and great love story. Mallon does not contradict this but in his account, the realities of married life are explored. There are occasional conflicts. Nancy is smart enough to let Ronnie think he wins them. But Mallon gives us another love story, between the fictional Peter Cox and Anne Macmurray. They are divorced for most of this novel. Peter is a former low-level political figure and wants to be more. His self-love has led him to divorce Anne, marry another, get deserted by the second, younger, trophy wife, and meet somewhat of a tragic end in the arms of Anne. This frequently contentious relationship for more than twenty years is highly entertaining and nudges the overall story along.
Mallon expands on popular images we have of a variety of well-known characters. Margaret Thatcher is portrayed as a person who would not hesitate to take Ronnie to the woodshed if he made silly foreign policy decisions. Jane Wyman, Reagan’s first wife, comes off more self- centered than Pamela Harriman, super rich widow of Averell Harriman, in a tough competition for that title. George Schultz comes across as a true friend of Nancy and he may have been one. His public persona was that of a person who did not suffer fools. Mallon treats Richard Nixon with respect as his Nixon character makes cynical comments about mistakes he made in office. Bob Dole is a person past his useful time as far as Nancy is concerned. Lillian Gish, Betty Davis, and Ann Sothern make appearances as does Eva Gabor. Jimmy Carter is portrayed as a person resentful of Reagan and comes across as whiney. This is just a sampling of characters commented upon.
Not much is said about Kissinger or Ollie North. Both are still influential today and it may have been a wise decision on Mallon’s part not to create a fictional dialogue that may find its way to court.
The influence of Jeanne Kirkpatrick is explored vis-à-vis several other characters. A unique British view on the Great Game is supplied through observations made by Christopher Hitchens. Whenever this character appears, the entire tone of the writing changes and becomes “high-brow.”
The Epilogue is masterful. It will bring tears to the eyes of many readers. This is Reagan’s confused musings and attempts to grasp lucid moments while he is in the final stages of Alzheimer’s. It is Reagan seeing only parts of the highlights of events he knew he was a part of. It allows Mallon to tie everything together as far as a literary device. At the same time, it is very emotional.
I immediately followed Mallon’s author page on Amazon and I will read a lot more of his work.