sexta-feira, 18 de dezembro de 2015

‘Finale,’ by Thomas Mallon - Review By ROBERT DRAPER



‘Finale,’ by Thomas Mallon



THE NEW YORK TIMES
Faces of an era. Credit Photographs: center, Ronald Reagan, by Dirck Halstead/The LIFE Images Collection — Getty Images. Clockwise from upper right: Nancy Reagan, by George Tames/The New York Times; William F. Buckley Jr., by Ron Galella/WireImage; Merv Griffin, by Bob Riha Jr./WireImage; Christopher Hitchens, by Catherine Karnow/Corbis; John Hinckley Jr., from associated Press; Joan Quigley, by Tony Korody/The LIFE Images Collection — Getty Images

Readers of “Finale,” Thomas Mallon’s sly and penetrating ninth novel, are well aware that the book’s protagonist, the nation’s 40th president, is destined to be revered as the Republican Party’s patron saint, his very name synonymous with conservative virtue. However, none of the novel’s characters know this in real time. “Finale” takes place primarily in 1986, two years after Ronald Reagan’s final triumphant campaign and two years before he vacates the White House for good. His presidential legacy is on the line, and the events of 1986 — a fateful nuclear arms meeting in Reykjavik with Mikhail Gorbachev and the brewing Iran-contra scandal — threaten to undo it. The sense of foreboding, bordering at times on panic, that pervades this work of historical fiction stands as an arresting contrast to today’s notion of the unassailable Teflon president.
Mallon is a poised storyteller who traffics in history’s ironic creases. His novels don’t upend conventional wisdom so much as remind us that history is a rickety architecture of human endeavor — that today’s statues commemorate yesterday’s frail and fumbling mortals. Less capable practitioners of historical fiction are often all too eager to demonstrate their archival mastery of the era in question. Mallon’s novels, in contrast, never come off as feats of plodding research. A resident of Washington, D.C., Mallon gravitates naturally toward political melodrama, from Lincoln’s assassination to McCarthyism to Watergate. Compared with these searing episodes, the waning years of the Reagan presidency would seem to constitute rather banal fare. It’s perhaps for this reason that “Finale” represents Mallon’s most audacious and important work yet.

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Reagan’s greatness, or even his competence, remained at best an open issue in 1986. The Gipper’s unflappability throughout this tempestuous year is a disconcerting phenomenon that Mallon plays for maximum effect. The Pulitzer Prize-­winning biographer Edmund Morris underwent a meltdown in attempting to understand Reagan, to whom he had been given extraordinary access. (Devilishly, Mallon provides a scene in which poor Morris struggles in vain to tease a reflective comment from his politely apathetic subject.) The author’s decision here — disappointing, perhaps, to those who would like the whole matter cleared up — is to make a virtue out of Reagan’s opacity. In a sense, “Finale” is a mystery novel. Is the principal character, as one observer in the book puts it, an idiot or an idiot savant? Mallon all but dares us to consider him to be the former. In one scene, the president sits among a Hollywood posse that includes Merv Griffin and Eva Gabor and doodles on a menu card. In another, an exasperated character who has just spoken to the president on the phone recalls that he “spent more time talking about the squirrel on his windowsill” than about a pressing matter at hand.
Mallon’s Reagan — described by the president of Iceland as “the most deeply shallow man she’d ever met” — is both omnipresent in and virtually absent from “Finale.” Other than the book’s climactic dialogue between the president and Gorbachev in Reykjavik, the Great Communicator’s silky voice is seldom heard, except literally in the background — on TV, in a convention hall — on a ceaseless ’80s soundtrack that’s more elemental than human. Still, in mystery there’s power. In the pivotal showdown, Gorbachev is kept off balance by his adversary — or, as Mallon puts it, “Gorbachev didn’t know what to make of the sweetness that suffused Reagan’s stubbornness.” At the conclusion of one of their talks, the president shakes the Russian’s hand and then presses into his palm a list of Soviet dissidents seeking to leave the motherland — throwing him back on his heels one more time.

The Reagan conundrum is one Mallon’s characters all wrestle with. That’s the case even with Nancy Reagan, depicted here as shallow and vindictive but also desperately alone with her fears of all that could go wrong with “Ronnie’s” presidency. In the opening chapter, she’s staring adoringly at her orating spouse — “the Gaze” — while a cascade of doubts and grievances rumbles beneath her radiant expression. (“People wondered how she never appeared bored listening to the same speech for the 50th time,” Mallon writes. “It was simple: She never listened to it.”) The nightmare of her husband’s near assassination is ever looming: “Five years later, every slammed door or dropped fork still sounded like a shot.” But what stays with her most is the horrific recognition that her actor husband’s performance could fall apart at any minute. Egged on by her astrologer, Joan Quigley, Nancy Reagan spends much of 1986 scheming to find a way for her husband to gracefully resign before the end of the year. In marked contrast to Ronnie, his wife is all too aware of her neuroses; as she tells one of her aides, “Overreacting is what I do.” Mallon’s portrayal of the first lady is humane, thoroughly convincing and counts as one of the book’s triumphs.
So is his presentation of Richard Nixon, with whom “Finale” opens, rather unexpectedly. Mallon had considerable sport with the disgraced president in his previous novel, “Watergate.” But the Nixon of 1986 is strangely likable: unfailingly observant, crassly funny, more philosophical than self-pitying and, as it turns out, the novel’s most reliable narrator. He alone recognizes, when Reagan steps aside as Gerald Ford’s challenger in 1976, that the defeated politician “was heading not for a pasture but a short stretch of wilderness, on the other side of which lay something vast.” And it’s Nixon, Mallon hints in a remarkable plot twist, who quite possibly ended the Cold War by faxing Reagan a note of exquisite advice. But of Reagan, writes Mallon, even the all-knowing ex-president “realized yet again that he didn’t understand this guy in the least.”
As in his previous novels, Mallon works deftly with an ensemble cast, employing both real-life and fictitious characters, with the effect that his portrait of the Reagan years is rendered as a beguiling collage. His characters are relentlessly witty (sometimes dubiously so, but that’s preferable to a slate of dullards) and are often deployed as cameos just for the comic hell of it — as in the case of Fawn Hall, Oliver North’s attractive assistant, and the acid-tongued conservative journalist William F. Buckley Jr.
Mallon sends up the notables of the 1980s with brilliant if bitchy aplomb — describing, for example, the United Nations ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick as “a caricaturist’s dream, handsome and villainous, her butchness somehow deeply feminine” and calling our attention to Jackie Kennedy’s “huge smile so unfortunately compromised by her smoker’s teeth.” Some of the vignettes are more effective than others. Mallon places a catty dialogue between Bette Davis and Ann Sothern about their former B-actor colleague “Little Ronnie Reagan” just after the breakdown of the Reykjavik talks — a brilliant authorial play that renders Reagan as an affable failure whose talentlessness has at last done him in. A few other characters, like Jimmy Carter and Reagan’s would-be assassin, John Hinckley, seem like superfluous inclusions, mainly because Mallon doesn’t inhabit their psyches and thereby reveal them as something beyond what we already know from yesteryear’s newspapers.
The novel’s one flaw lies in Mallon’s sentimental treatment of his close friend, Christopher Hitchens, who died in 2011. In “Finale,” Hitch (as his associates knew him) is a rascally journalistic amalgam of James Bond, Bob Woodward and Oscar Wilde. Power brokers and national security experts submit meekly to his demands for an interview; female sources are eager to sleep with him; the great and haughty Margaret Thatcher finds herself quoting a Hitchens snippet back to him. His ability to get the better of every situation may or may not have been true in real life. But in this world of fictionally textured reality, he’s something of a caricature, the only hitch in an otherwise galloping narrative.

FINALE
A Novel of the Reagan Years
By Thomas Mallon
462 pp. Pantheon Books. $27.95.

Robert Draper is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine. He is currently working on a book about race and murder in Washington, D.C.

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/20/books/review/finale-thomas-mallon-novel-about-ronald-reagan-review.html
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