By Thomas Mallon
It’s not merely to reprimand an ill-advised novel but also and mainly to celebrate simple responsible civics that reader encountering Thomas Mallon’s new book Landfall remember something the post-2016 world will be every day encouraging them to forget: George W. Bush was a terrible President of the United States. He started two wars designed to be eternal, he cluelessly botched his administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina, and he bumbled through his two terms steadfastly learning nothing, adapting to nothing, and listening to nothing. He was not an indelicate and rough-hewn cowboy stomping through a Byzantine world of backstabbing city-slicker politicians; he was a headstrong, inattentive idiot.
To readers of a certain age, all of this will go without saying; it’s only by comparison with the current Republican Presidential administration that the previous one can even begin to look borderline competent, much less relatable. But the obvious needs a bit of re-stating in light of Landfall, where George W. Bush is not so much terrible as he is an enfant terrible, a bossy, instinctive leader given to unpredictable flare-ups of heedless temper and staffed on all sides by ambitious aides always keeping one eye on their own political skins. On every level of the intentionality spectrum, the novel encourages readers not only to sympathize with Bush but, by extension, to exonerate him.
Mallon claims the book is the concluding volume in what began a trilogy of political novels about American administrations within living memory: first Watergate, then Finale (about Bush Senior and Ronald Reagan), and now Landfall. In this third book as in the first two, a prodigious amount of research congregates right beneath the chatty, fast-moving surface of the plot, which revolves around some of the major events of the Bush administration’s second term and hinges directly at its half-way point on the infamous hurricane that brought down the administration in the eyes of the day’s pundits.
The book bristles with cast. Mallon knew a great many of the newsmakers of the day, and he’s read up infinitely on all the others, and he’s determined to cram every last member of that cast into Landfall. His most effective device for doing this is also his most artificial: occasionally writing up the famed dinner parties held in the Wyoming by Christopher Hitchens and his wife and roving around the room in person to eavesdrop and name-drop on the likes of Paul Wolfowitz, John Edwards, John Bolton, Ann Richards, Bob Dole, Larry King, Michael Kinsley, and Donatella Versace. Faced with the admittedly daunting task of getting so many people to sound not only distinct but authentic, Mallon opts to have every last one of them sound tinny and out of character, and since he declines to fill his readers in on any of the details he knows so well, a pall of obscurity hangs over everything. At one point Kinsley is talking to Hitchens, for instance:
“He’s pre-trial,” replied Hitchens, who had made [former Vice President Cheney aide “Scooter”] Libby one of his quixotic causes. “He’s over at the Hudson Institute for the moment.”
“Thinking and tanking,” said Kinsley. “Well, at least he diverts you from David Irving.” The Hitch continued to champion the Holocaust-denying historian’s right to publish along with his release from jail on the European Continent.
Libby is scarcely mentioned again, nor is Irving, nor is any of this explained. If you know anything about David Irving being in jail over on “the European Continent,” you’ll smile at the mention. If you don’t, tough bananas. Likewise when Bush is thinking about the “judicial murder” complexities of the Terry Schiavo case:
He honestly believed that, like the death penalty, torture could save lives. But every so often he needed to talk it through, receive some assurance that he was correct. Laura wasn’t the right person for this: any talk of physical pain sent her mind straight back to the skidding and screech in that Midland intersection thirty-seven years ago; the sudden, sickening death of the guy in the car she hit. As soon as the thought would come to her, you’d see her eyes darken, as if a pair of black contact lenses had been put over her pupils. Until the memory clicked off she was just gone, her mind having been rushed to a secure location that nobody could find.
This is effectively written, but since it’s not helpfully written, since the average non-Beltway reader won’t have any idea what long-ago tragedy is being so artfully hinted, the passage might as well be in computer code. Every single one of those non-initiate readers will immediately respond, “What? Laura Bush killed somebody?” - and the question will rattle uselessly around the book. If you still have the minutiae of the period at your fingertips, you’ll nod knowingly. If not, then not.
And even being armed with that minutiae won’t help in the many, many cases where Mallon decides to depart from it and indulge in the exact same elevating and apologizing routine that made Finale and especially Watergate such infuriating books. Sometimes, people genuinely are as bad as history portrays them. Richard Nixon was one such person, and George W. Bush is another, not that you’d ever know it from absurd scenes like the one when Our Hero grows frustrated by a Cabinet meeting and says this:
The president threw his pencil onto a hassock. “You know, there used to be hog barns where we’re sitting. We knocked them down to build the house. I suspect the animals inside ‘em had more productive conversations. And were better behaved.”
Or the moment when Bush reflects on the fact that he and Tony Blair had ultimately made war on Saddam Hussein “for the simple, unspeakable reason that he was a bad guy.” In a note of very likely unintentional dark humor, the next line is: “But it had all gone so wrong, become so anguished.”
Yes indeed, it had all gone so wrong, become so anguished. No anguish and precious little wrong in Landfall, but readers can at least hope that the author’s comments about bringing a trilogy to a close are true. Seeing this kind of tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner nonsense doled out to first Nixon then Reagan and now Bush has been trying enough. If Mallon’s next book is called Wall, we’ll have an alternative trilogy on our hands.
—Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, The Spectator, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.