By coincidence, I’ve recently read new books from two of the best historical novelists writing in America today. Actually, that’s not quite as simple as it sounds: Chango’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes by William Kennedy came out last year, but I’ve only just caught up with it; while Watergate by Thomas Mallon has only just come out, but for some reason I received a review copy as early as last summer and read it around October. There is something curiously appropriate in that historical reversal in my encounter with the two books.
Watergate, the later published but earlier read of the books, recounts the story of the Watergate break-in, or more exactly its aftermath, as seen through the eyes of some half-dozen of the players in the drama. It takes the story from the moment of the break-in to Nixon’s departure. Just about every character in the book is a real person (I suspect one or two might be amalgamations of various minor characters, but I’m not expert enough on 1970s Washington machinations to know for sure), though there are inventions; for instance, Mallon gives Pat Nixon an affaire that I’m pretty sure did not happen. He also goes into secret meetings where the record of exactly what took place clearly owes more to the novelist than the historian. Another example: he offers an explanation for missing minutes on the White House tapes that makes novelistic sense, but I certainly would not assume that this is the actual explanation. Mallon, in other words, is very clear that he is writing a work of fiction and has no hesitation in bringing fiction into his story; yet he sticks very closely to the public record and the actual figures involved in the events.
Chango’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes is the latest in Kennedy’s on-going series of novels about Albany, and the various political machinations in that city throughout the 20th century. This novel opens with a vignette set in the 1930s, when Bing Crosby sings at a private party, as witnessed by young Daniel Quinn, Kennedy’s avatar in the story. The scene then shifts to Havana just at the point that Castro’s rebellion against Batista was getting under way. Quinn is there trying to start his journalistic career: he meets the aging Hemingway, gets an interview with Castro, and falls in love with a fiery revolutionary called Renata. Then the scene shifts again, and from about one-third of the way through the book everything takes place in Albany on one day, 5 June 1968, between the shooting of Robert Kennedy and the announcement of his death. It was a moment that saw racial tension in many American cities, and Albany was not unaffected. Kennedy himself covered the race riots in Albany as a young journalist, and here those experiences are put on to Daniel Quinn, now home from Cuba with Renata as his wife. What occurs is entirely fictional, in that every character is made up (except for the walk-on parts by Crosby and Hemingway), and the specific events recounted are also fictions, but they are based on, or perhaps it might be better to say constructed from, real characters and events witnessed by Kennedy on that fateful day.
What fascinates me about these two books is that they deal with events in living memory (or, at least, within my memory), yet treat something that is almost current as a fit subject for historical fiction. When does history start? And though they are both so close in their chosen subject matter (just over six years separates the death of Robert Kennedy and Richard Nixon’s departure from the White House in August 1974), the authors approach their subjects in radically different ways.
Both Mallon and Kennedy tell their story through several different viewpoint characters. But where Mallon’s voices are cool, rather impersonal, well-educated witnesses to great events reporting what they saw as clearly as possible; Kennedy’s voices are idiosyncratic, impassioned, impressionistic. There is a bravura passage in Kennedy’s novel when Quinn’s father, George, in the early stages of alzheimer’s disease, walks into town and sees the city and characters of his youth overlaid upon the city and characters then around him. It is a stunning passage that lays out the whole personal and political history of Albany, but does so through the eyes of someone who never quite comprehends what he sees. There are no bravura passages in Mallon. At the end of Kennedy’s novel we are left saying: yes, that’s what it must have been like. At the end of Mallon’s novel we are left saying: yes, that’s what happened. The difference is subtle, the difference between history as experience and history as record, but it is what informs the differences between these two great historical novelists.
There is an interesting political difference between the two. I’ve read all of Mallon’s novels, (including his hard-to-find first campus novel, Arts and Sciences), and a lot of his reviews and essays in the New Yorker, and I would guess that his political sympathies are more Democrat than Republican (despite the fact that he was the ghost writer of Dan Quayle’s memoirs). And yet, in this and his previous novel, Fellow Travellers, he seems to be engaged in writing a Republican history of post-war America. Fellow Travellers had a cast that was virtually all Republican, except for the poor homosexual whose career was threatened in the febrile atmosphere of McCarthy’s Washington. In Watergate the only Democrats have walk-on parts and virtually no voice. We see everything through the eyes of people working for Nixon (his secretary, a Republican fundraiser, one of the Watergate plumbers) or who otherwise admire him (his wife, Alice Roosevelt). Although a Democrat voice in this story would be necessarily uninformed, this does, at first, feel like it is an unbalanced view of events (the closest we get to an opposing viewpoint is Elliott Richardson ‘Deep Throat’ is never even mentioned). Yet it makes sense to see everything through Republican eyes, because there we see responsibility, and there we get the sense of things falling apart as the cover-up unravels. It makes for a view of the whole Watergate aftermath as a sequence of escalating disasters, a tidal wave overwhelming the whole way that the world is viewed. It is the Republican viewpoint, therefore, that perhaps most clearly identifies this as a novel rather than a documentary.
I only discovered Kennedy’s writing with The Flaming Corsage, though that was a novel that delighted me from the moment I picked it up, and I have made an effort to accumulate his earlier work. It seems that there is a consistent political thread that runs through all of the Albany novels, which is an attack on the Democrat machine that runs the city. But it seems to be a world in which the differences between Democrat and Republican are irrelevant, this is not party politics but machine politics. Kennedy’s own sympathies are clearly with the underclass, his heroes are always working for the poor or the blacks, while the Democrat bosses are bent on furthering their own power and wealth. In other words, while Mallon examines the minimal differences between party hacks in Washington politics, Kennedy is concerned with a broader left-right political division in which the party represents the right. Here the political is clearly the personal.
And yet, though they take radically different literary approaches, which seem to reflect radically different political approaches, there is something in both novels that makes them work. Perhaps it is the fact that they are both city novels. You cannot imagine Kennedy’s work taking place anywhere other than Albany, a city that shapes the characters, and throughout the novel you constantly see the directions of the streets, the locations of the bars and whorehouses and political offices. Kennedy’s work inhabits Albany like a comfortable overcoat. Similarly, Mallon’s political novels (not just Watergate and Fellow Travellers but also books like Henry and Clara and Two Moons) are inescapably Washington novels. The fogs and the grand public buildings are the settings against which these stories must be played out, this is a place where every hotel and apartment building and office block is suffused with party politics. It is a fiction as inseparably wedded to its setting as Kennedy’s is, but the setting makes for a different approach, and different perspective on the political. And because both Mallon and Kennedy are so adept at evoking their particular settings, so their stories are so vivid in their very distinctive ways.