Mallon's characters walk tightrope of religious, political, sexual ties

May 13, 2007|By Art Winslow | Art Winslow,Chicago Tribune

Fellow Travelers

By Thomas Mallon

Pantheon / 356 pages / $25

In Many Are the Crimes, historian Ellen Schrecker's examination of McCarthyism in America, she sketches the growth of post-World War II loyalty programs at departments such as State and Commerce, whose employees were subject to repeated attacks, most prominently from the Capitol Hill redoubts of Sens. Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin and Pat McCarran of Nevada.

Public Law 733, passed in 1950, had authorized 11 departments and agencies to dismiss employees summarily if they were deemed security risks, and President Harry S. Truman signed an executive order the following year that replaced the "reasonable grounds" standard for considering someone disloyal with a less-rigorous threshold of "reasonable doubt." Shortly after taking office in 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed an executive order extending P.L. 733 to cover the entire government. Escalation of the Cold War and McCarthy's antics solidified an environment in which, Schrecker notes, "people could be fired if they were gay or drank too much or could not keep a secret or if they appeared to be vulnerable to some kind of pressure either through their own wrongdoing or their family connections."

Welcome to Thomas Mallon's Fellow Travelers, a novel set in precisely that period and context, in which one character could ask about another's newly fired friend: "What's his problem? Pink or lavender?" "Lavender" is the reply. The friend had failed a polygraph test administered under the direction of Scott McLeod, the real-life former FBI agent who was put in charge of State Department security and who appears as a character in Mallon's novel.

The fictional character who poses the communist-or-homosexual question, Z. Hawkins Fuller, is a State Department operative who will also be dragged into McLeod's clutches to have his galvanic skin response measured, after being betrayed as a closeted gay by a subordinate in his office. Miraculously, "Hawk," who is sexually magnetic to males and females, manages to fool the machine through some mental galvanism of his own.

The main on-again, off-again affair at the center of Fellow Travelers begins with a serendipitous meeting as Fuller shares a sunny park bench at Dupont Circle with a milk-drinking younger man, Timothy Laughlin. Laughlin is a summer intern at the Washington Star, and as an emergency fill-in has just attended McCarthy's wedding and reception to take notes for the newspaper's society reporter.

Later, through Fuller's intervention, Laughlin will be taken on as a member of Sen. Charles Potter's staff. Fuller is something of a Lothario, troubled principally by practical considerations - discovery of their liaison could end employment for them both - but Laughlin contends with the tension between his acts and his devout Catholicism, and expends much of his energy trying to reconcile two different kinds of faith.

As Mallon plays it out, fellow-traveling is a trope for many types of consorting, whether from belief in political systems or in the day-to-day playing of the political game itself, or in personal relations (although, as the fired gay character says of naming names to the government, "You know, `we' don't all know one another."). The press often represents an unindicted co-conspirator here, operating out of shared interests with a political patron. For example, McCarthy, when feeling threatened by Potter, tells him, "I have some friends among the press. Men like [Walter] Winchell and [Hearst newspaper columnist] George Sokolsky. ... Winchell has a microphone, Senator. And Sokolsky has a thousand of Hearst's printing presses."

The public/private divide is a closely related fault line that Mallon has running under his literary turf, how machinations behind the scenes both politically (such as the meeting above between Potter and McCarthy) and personally are translated in the public sphere, in which duplicity is all too common. Laughlin, an ardent idealist who believes in the cause of fighting communism, gradually becomes disaffected with politics-as-theater, dismayed to discover that "it's all phony" when he sees how words are put in Potter's mouth, for which the senator is then lionized.

The high irony of McCarthy (rumored in his time to have had homosexual experiences, something that Mallon plays with in his plot) and his nasty deputy Roy Cohn (whose homosexuality is historically documented, although it does not play heavily in the novel) investigating others for moral turpitude is rich, if a little obvious.

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