Review

Fellow Travelers

by Thomas Mallon

Thomas Mallon is known for his historical novels (DEWEY DEFEATS
TRUMAN, HENRY AND CLARA), so the fact that his new book, FELLOW
TRAVELERS, takes place during the rise and fall of 1950s
McCarthyism makes sense for his oeuvre. This is the tale of
uber-WASP Hawkins Fuller and his hapless, devoted working-class
Irish boy toy Timothy Laughlin, whose government job fuels both
Laughlin's passion and Fuller's pity. Set against the backdrop of
social conformity and moral confusion, the novel leaves no period
detail unturned, from Perle Mesta's barbed wit to Joseph McCarthy's
roving hands to DC's Cold War-era gay nightlife.

It must have been not just tempting but fascinating for Mallon to
integrate past and present Washington, DC (his home) with a love
story. Fuller and Laughlin are types, to be sure, but they are each
fleshed out (and speaking of flesh, there's a bit more of it here
than in many mainstream novels that include sex between men, and
it's beautifully done --- not simply handled with deft
euphemisms).

There are other types, too --- both fictional and factual. Mary
Johnson, an administrator in Fuller's office who befriends both
men, is a strong, single, Southern woman ahead of her time and
gender by several decades. Since Mary's story is the warp that
weaves together those of her closeted colleagues, it's a good thing
she is the one character who manages to transcend her fate and
figure out her own version of a happy ending.

As Fuller spins his own doomed future (career- and social-climbing
cemented by marriage and fatherhood), Laughlin struggles more
honestly and mightily with his own sexual and spiritual
inclinations. His attempts to reconcile his Roman Catholic
upbringing and faith (lost and found, by turns) are some of the
most moving scenes in the book, perhaps because they are still so
relevant. When Laughlin enlists and is sent overseas, he replaces
the energy he once expended on chasing his elusive Hawk to praying
for the soon-to-be-doomed-to-Communism Hungarian Cardinal
Mindzenty, thus learning that there is more than one way to lose
something you love.

What makes FELLOW TRAVELERS unforgettable, finally, is not its
Capitol Hill set pieces or noir-ish realism, but the smaller
moments between characters: when Laughlin's sister quietly lets him
know she accepts him, when Fuller has a rare moment of clumsiness
during a tryst, and when Mary attempts to offer what little comfort
she can to a young man looking for answers and an older gentleman
searching for peace.

Reviewed by Bethanne Kelly Patrick on January 21, 2011

Fellow Travelers
by Thomas Mallon

  • Publication Date: May 6, 2008
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 0307388905
  • ISBN-13: 9780307388902