The author of Watergate on three great novels about power and its pursuit.
Thomas Mallon writes novels in which the lives of ordinary people become entangled with events — often political — beyond their control. His latest, Watergate, plumbs the depths of the scandal and attempted cover-up that scuttled Richard Nixon’s presidency and tranformed the way Americans view their government. This week, he points us to three works of historical fiction that — much like Watergate — dramatize the lives of men who must reconcile the pursuit of power with their sometimes unreliable moral compasses.
By Gore Vidal
“For much of the twentieth century, historical fiction fell into a low-middlebrow slump, turning into a sort of costume drama that serious literary novelists did their best to avoid. The genre’s most important American redeemer was Gore Vidal, who injected it with slyness and wit. His portrayal of Lincoln is a puzzle of perspectives, a series of competing views from which the reader must select, reject, and amalgamate in order to take the president’s proper measure. The book substitutes sharp immediacy and healthy skepticism for the sonorousness and sentimentality that often smother fictional portraits of the Great Emancipator.”
By Billy Lee Brammer
“Lyndon Johnson achieved political greatness as the undisputed ruler of the U.S. Senate, but Brammer, who once worked for him, turns LBJ into a governor named Arthur Fenstemaker. Brammer’s trilogy of political novels is set in and around Austin in the decade before the real Johnson’s presidency. The author gives readers a series of male leading characters caught between idealism and cynicism, often in thrall to women and liquor, not really sure whether they want to be the heroes of an earlier time or the antiheroes of the one they’ve been born into. The book has its weak spots, but its atmosphere is permanently memorable; and it deserves the cult status it’s managed to obtain.”
By William Kennedy
“Chiefly the story of lawyer-fixer Roscoe Owen Conway, Kennedy’s superb novel operates, unlike the ones above, on the municipal level — dealing with the mayor’s office of Albany, New York, a city that belongs to this author as surely as James Ellroy owns Los Angeles and Charles Dickens owned London. Politics may be a matter of baroque complexity, blood feuds, and bare knuckles, but in Kennedy’s hands it is also a lyrical, transporting affair.”