Those Little-Town Blues

Those Little-Town Blues

Those Little-Town Blues

Reading between the lines.
Jan. 1 1997 3:30 AM

Those Little-Town Blues

Thomas Mallon's Dewey Defeats Truman offers up midcentury middle America at its cutest.

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Dewey Defeats Truman
By Thomas Mallon
(Pantheon Books; 368 pages; $24)
Thomas Mallon's Dewey Defeats Truman offers up midcentury middle America at its cutest.

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(1,374 words; posted Tuesday, Dec. 31; to be composted Tuesday, Jan. 7)

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Thomas Mallon       Dewey Defeats Truman is a brilliantly conventional book. Its evocation of small-town American life in the 1940s is plausible, wise, likable, and vivid. More than merely technically, author Thomas Mallon has everything in place. If avant-garde writing actually existed in America, then Dewey Defeats Truman would be its sworn enemy: It represents the fictional equivalent of "the vital center." And, like a child who never rebels, it may excite in one a happy disgust.       The book's uncanny obedience to normality arises, perhaps inevitably, from the world it inhabits. For, it is 1948. We are in Owosso, Mich., the hometown of Thomas Dewey, the New York governor who challenged Harry Truman for the presidency that year, and we follow a few months in the town's life until the November election. (The title refers to a celebratedly premature newspaper headline.) Thus Mallon must wrestle with two depleted genres: the small-town novel and the historical novel. Though he is never sentimental and is often delicately evasive, he can hardly resist an over-familiar small-town typology: Here is the widow, Jane Herrick, who lost her elder son in the war; her younger son Tim, the town rebel, is already drinking too much. In a wonderful episode that mobilizes all Mallon's best talents, Tim steals a plane at a local air show and flies away. Here is the bumptious new arrival, Peter Cox, a good-looking young lawyer who is running as a Republican for the state Senate. Peter is one of those midcentury engines running on the invisible fuel of the Zeitgeist. He is given to exhortations such as: "Well, that's the future. Everything's going to speed up." Jack Riley is the solid local boy, a Democrat and union organizer. Anne Macmurray is the girl whom everyone adores, an Ann Arbor graduate who provides collegiate polish at the local bookshop. Anne must decide between Peter and Jack, each of whom she is attracted to in a different way; and history must decide if Dewey, the local boy who made good, will defeat Truman.
ne of the dangers of historical fiction is that characters may be exemplary of their times rather than irresponsible, that they may perpetually be in historical uniform, as it were, saluting the decade. John Updike, who has called Thomas Mallon "one of the most interesting American novelists at work today," lapsed thus in his latest novel, The Beauty of the Lilies, which was also historical. Mallon's book is much better than Updike's, much more attentive and precise. But it shares with Updike's a scholarly diligence, whereby detail becomes, in part, the right answer to an imagined quiz. It is 1948, so Anne is reading The Naked and the Dead; The Big Sleep is released; and, "Well, I guess even India is independent now," is said at one moment--and so on. This is a weakness inherent in the form, not in Mallon's writing, which is rarely awkward and is often softly acute with its deployment of historical data. For instance, one of the town's ladies laments, at the end of a failed dinner party, "I should have made this evening into one of those 'buffets' "--Mallon perfectly catching, with those drooping single quotation marks, the eager provincial chase of the latest historical novelty.      Anne chooses Jack at first, almost marries him, and then chooses Peter in a late reversal that is eccentric and completely believable. But then Anne is herself eccentric and completely believable; we believe in her literary aspirations and in her obliging roguishness, the kind that comes from being better educated than most of her friends. Mallon lets her vibrate gently, but very solidly, in the little local web of the novel; she is one of the book's deepest charms. Her choice is Mallon's version of Bathsheba's pastoral choice in Thomas Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd; she must marry the rich farmer or the solid peasant. Bathsheba takes the solid peasant; Anne takes the equivalent of the rich farmer--the out-of-towner barely down from Yale who will at least ensure that she does not spend a placid lifetime in Owosso, as Jack does. The novel ends in Hardyesque completion--that is to say, in marriages, homecomings, and sour victories. Tim Herrick, feared dead, returns to his mother; Jack is thrown over for Peter; and Dewey is thrown over for Truman.
his novel does so much so charmingly that to fault it for its dogged regularity seems cruel. But Dewey Defeats Truman is too often willfully minor and reassuring, as if it were written by a literate town council in order to silence naysayers. Henry and Clara (1994), Mallon's last novel, was also historical (set between 1845 and 1911), but it was less consoling. Instead of being about a happily knowable community like Owosso, it plunged into the mystery of a single, disastrous marriage (Henry and Clara's). In place of a presidential election that changed little, the novel's pivot is a national catastrophe--Lincoln's assassination, which Henry and Clara, sitting next to the president in Ford's Theater, witness. Mallon suggests that Henry and Clara's marriage was another, more obscure victim of Lincoln's assassin. The novel has an undertone of despair, far from the fattened sureties of Dewey Defeats Truman. Though the writing in Henry and Clara is conventional, it often seems on the verge of explosion.      The problem with Dewey Defeats Truman is that it begins to take on the properties of its material, like someone who melts his shoes while warming himself at a fire. Mallon's mode of narration is the source of the failure. He writes in the third person; yet, he is more often inside a character's head than outside it. So the book sounds like its characters, and its characters are too cozy, too likable. Here is how Peter enters Anne's bookshop: "It was Peter Cox, several years older than herself and too attractive for his own good. ... He sat down, entitled as you please, in Mr. Abner's chair behind the counter."
ere Mallon is both inside and outside Anne's head. It is Anne who provides those warm, vernacular qualifications--"too attractive for his own good" and "entitled as you please." But it is Mallon's narration that absorbs and uses them; they become part of the novel's way of seeing the world. A little later, Anne and the novelist have merged: "Anne looked down at her thin little Gruen wristwatch. It was already 9:20, and if she was any later, even Leo Abner would likely lose his temper." Novels that are written as internally as this one will always face this danger: Virginia Woolf's Between the Acts begins to take on the snobbishness and pettiness of its villagers. But the contemporary American novel about small-town life is peculiarly threatened by the folksiness of its world.      At this moment, as Anne hurries to work, the novel's style has become as dainty as its subject. It is but a short step to this kind of scene-setting: "The remains of the peach ice cream were starting to melt, but nearly a hundred people had gotten scoops as they waited for the Dewey Club's open meeting to begin at 7:30 p.m. on July 26." The tone is now both babyish and middlebrow, as if Mallon were pleased that so many of the townsfolk have managed to get a scoop of the disappearing ice cream. And perhaps he is. But there is such a thing as loving one's characters too much. And there is such a thing as loving one's readers too much. The novel ends in a perfect identification of author and character. Jane Herrick, about to learn that her younger son has returned, is lost in a reverie about her elder son, who died in the war. Mallon writes: "She was dancing across the bridge in the arms of a young man in a private's uniform. You couldn't see him, but he was there." It is the book's last sentence, and it is representative. Through Jane, Mallon addresses his readers ("you") and sweetly pulls us into the circle of comprehension. And he soothes us, assuring us that his characters' dreams are also our dreams. It is not the gesture of a truly serious writer; it is the pledge of a faithful, and intensely accomplished, entertainer.
James Wood is a senior editor at the New Republic.

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Photograph of Thomas Mallon by Marion Ettlinger, courtesy of Pantheon Books

James Wood is a senior editor of the New Republic.