Issue:  Vol. 47 / No. 25 / 22 June 2017
 

Red scare

Books

McCarthy era's gay DC life


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ADVERTISMENT

Fellow Travelers, a novel by Thomas Mallon
Pantheon Press $25

We live in historic times. Well, anyone could have said that, but if you were a gay closeted employee of the U.S. government during the 1950s, with a half-drunk Senator Joe McCarthy blathering into any available TV camera about ferreting out communists and deviants, well, you might be a little more concerned than some of the almost cavalier characters in Thomas Mallon's seventh novel, Fellow Travelers.

Of course, we currently snicker at late-night talk show jokes made about heinous torture and war crimes committed every day by the Bush Administration. So it isn't too off the mark for such derring-do to be narrated with wit and a facile style in Mallon's well-researched and neatly characterized novel.

Tim Laughlin, a young Republican devoted to Catholicism and his new employer, a double-amputee veteran senator (nicknamed "Citizen Canes"), quickly falls for Hawkins Fuller, a dashing State Department official. Their affair takes its time to set in, not without the growing knowledge of Fuller's co-worker and gal pal, Mary Johnson.

In Fellow Travelers (the code word for communists during such times) McCarthy himself is not reduced to the background, and is given a few scenes of alcoholic arrogance and fumbling mendacity in the presence of the main characters. This blend of historical fact and fiction is Mallon's forte.

As Tim and Hawkins commence and maintain their passionate affair, Tim becomes caught in more of a power grip under Hawkins' seniority and experience; Hawkins passes a bizarre State Dept. "gay test" with flying, but no rainbow, colors.

The McCarthy hearings, depicted in radio broadcasts, TV and overheard gossip, descend into a lurid subplot involving Dave Schine and his alleged paramour Roy Cohn (younger theatre fans with little gay history knowledge may know him as a "character" in Angels in America). Cohn, foiled in an attempt to secure Schine a non-combat position in the Army, spent a part of the McCarthy hearings going after the military by accusing its officers' corps of having communist spies among its ranks. Some seamier details about McCarthy unfold that didn't make the media of the day.

In the novel, as the McCarthy hearings wane, a side plot of Mary's affair with an ambassador from Estonia, and Tim's eventual travels to foreign countries and military enlistment, with ensuing letters back and forth, reduce the third act of the novel to epistological format. A side chapter involving Clay Shaw (who would later be embroiled in the Kennedy assassination) seems out of place. What's interesting is that Fuller manages to deftly succeed where Cohn failed; by asking a few favors, Fuller gets young Tim a different, safer military assignment.

Homosexuality in all its diversity is portrayed here; the young, the naive, the manipulative, the power-mad, and the hypocritical. Yet Mallon infuses each character with the grace of humanity, and allows us to understand what it might have been like to live through such historic era, and survive it.






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