Will column: This romp of a novel will have you pining for the days of George W. Bush
WASHINGTON — Nostalgia is what Thomas Mallon is counting on to help draw readers to his new novel, “Landfall,” which takes them on a long stroll down memory lane, back to the golden days of … President George W. Bush’s second term. Really. So, if Mallon’s wonderfully entertaining romp attracts the attention it deserves, it will be partly because, considered in the light of current conditions, it was, comparatively speaking, a golden age when:
The 43rd president was promoting his “freedom agenda” (“As freedom takes root in Iraq, it will inspire millions across the Middle East to claim their liberty as well.”) while Iraq was being enveloped in “the insurgency,” aka barbarism, becoming the abattoir that the “Axis of Weasel” (France and others unenthusiastic about “the coalition of the willing”) had feared. (One of Mallon’s characters is propositioned by a man who suggests to her a “coition of the willing.”) Hurricane Katrina revealed the government’s competence to be approximately what most people think it is. Speaking of natural disasters, North Carolina’s Democratic Sen. John Edwards (of whom a Mallon character says, “Somebody ghost writes this guy’s conversation.”) used prostrated New Orleans as the launching pad for his campaign to become the 44th president. Harriet Miers was proposed to sit on the nation’s highest bench, where justices named Marshall, Harlan, Holmes, Taft, Cardozo, Brandeis and Jackson have sat. Congress, egged on by conservatives who misplaced their suspicion of intrusive government, waded into a family dispute over the medical care that should be provided to Terri Schiavo, who had been diagnosed as “persistently vegetative.”
So, why does Mallon think readers might want to revisit those days when real patriots ordered “freedom fries” with their cheeseburgers? To repeat: nostalgia for any time other than this one. If Mallon is right, then the most unlikely president has had the unlikely effect of rendering a service to something that is, to him, only a rumor: literature. On the eve of the 2016 election, Mallon wrote in The New Yorker:
“As we got deep into 2016, the Iraq insurgency and Hurricane Katrina came to feel almost like refuges. So did the political discourse of the early two-thousands: I invite you, in our current ghost-tweeted political era, to go back just eight years, to the Facebook postings of Sarah Palin, and tell me that they do not now read like a lost volume of ‘The Federalist Papers.’”
“In narrative and dialogue,” Mallon says, his novel “tries not to reconstruct actuality but to reimagine it.” Some might question the propriety of imagining the dialogue of Condoleezza Rice in bed with the Canadian foreign minister, but perhaps fiction is its own excuse. (William F. Buckley, in the first of his 22 novels, solved what he called the problem of the OSS — the obligatory sex scene — with a flourish by having his dashing protagonist, Blackford Oakes, say to Britain’s queen at the climactic moment, “Courtesy of the United States, ma’am.”)
Mallon is a sort of Republican — he often voted Republican, before the party became a cult — and readers of “Landfall” will encounter an interestingly sympathetic portrait of Bush, with “the fast gear-grinding of his moods, from third to reverse and back again,” his stubbornness, and his occasionally unvarnished candor:
“The U.S. representative to the six-party talks had declared: ‘We are not going to live with a nuclear North Korea.’
“Bush frowned: ‘What he said was diplo-speak for ‘until we agree to do what I just said we wouldn’t.’”
Writing a novel, says Mallon, who has written 10 of them, “is inherently an exercise in empathy,” something that is usually in short supply when Americans judge the people they put into power and hence into dilemmas. Mallon’s many years in Washington, where “the two chief conversational modes” are “argument and prediction,” have not made him cynical. “Extreme cynicism is,” he says, “its own kind of naivete.” Certainly people who are constantly and theatrically disillusioned about politics thereby confess to promiscuously embracing illusions.
Mallon, 67, has a Harvard Ph.D. and for many years was a professor of English. Perhaps it takes a novelist’s eye to notice something that, once noticed, is stunning. “Have you,” asks Mallon, “ever seen Donald Trump laugh?” You probably have not. Think about that. Mallon probably will not think about it in a novel set in 2019 because characters worthy of appearing in serious novels are not too simple to discern life’s incongruities, or too pompous to find them funny.
George Will’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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