Manyone is tempted to say most--contemporary novels take a purely private emotional situation as their point of departure. It is part of Thomas Mallons approach to invert this formula by placing public life at the center of his novels. His latest, Dewey Defeats Truman, is set in Thomas E. Deweys hometown of Owosso, Michigan, and unfolds over the months preceding the 1948 presidential election, which Dewey, the Republican candidate, was widely expected to win. The certainty of Deweys impending victory over the incumbent, Harry Truman, shapes most of the action in this novel, including the love affair that stands at its center.
Dewey, of course, does not win (DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN was the November 3, 1948, headline of the then-conservative Chicago Tribune, a paper with ulterior reasons for jumping the gun). The love affair, which is actually a love triangle, is rather charmingly employed to measure the effect of national politics on private, even intimately sexual, life. The heroine is Connecticut-born Anne Macmurray, recently graduated from the University of Michigan, who wants to write a novel, one that had nothing to do with herself. To support herself she has taken a job at the only bookstore in Owosso, where when we first encounter her she is reading the most popular novel of the day, The Naked and the Dead. What is a beautiful, literate girl from the East Coast doing in Owosso, Michigan? The explanation recalls Philip Larkins poem The Importance of Elsewhere:
All through the war her imagination had thrived by thinking of real life as what took place elsewhere and got lived by other people. Elsewhere had survived the war as an idea, a lure, and the notion that Owosso might be one of its quiet, unexpected precincts had brought her here a year ago.
She is duly courted by Peter Cox, the towns number-one up-and-coming Republican who is both a lawyer and candidate for the state legislature, and by the much sexier Jack Riley, a war hero and UAW official in nearby Flint who is in town the summer before the election to take care of a sick father. The theme of the two politically opposed suitors is mirrored on the national stage by Americas choice between the scrappy Truman and the painfully decorous Dewey of whom Alice Roosevelt Longworth is credited with saying, He looks like the little man on the wedding cake (some people still think it was this remark that did him in). Unlike the candidates for Annes affections, Dewey and Truman are distant, mysterious creatures, especially Dewey, who hasnt been in Owosso for thirty years. The symmetrical pairing of the love triangle and the national election gives the novel something of a fairy-tale quality. We are not in Updike territory, where a hallucinatory vividness seizes every bicycle, cocktail napkin, or disordered bedsheet, but in a more generalized setting where the emphasis falls on moral, emotional, and political choice.
There is a pleasurable sensation throughout the novel of an author who respects the line between private and public life but realizes that the line has a few holes. There is also an agreeable amount of sheer craziness that hovers at times on the verge of the improbable. Anne falls for the Democrat Jack Riley, mainly because hes great in bed, and as their affair proceeds (the other suitor, Peter Cox, glumly accepts it) a wild assortment of subplots is set in motion. Owossos business community, positive like the rest of the country that Dewey will win, begins planning a kind of Dewey Theme Park to be erected on the banks of the Shiawassee River. This greatly upsets the aged Horace Sinclair, a veteran of the Spanish-American War who for forty years has been accustomed to gaze at the riverbank with a riot of emotion, as he angrily tells one of the projects boosters. He also has something buried there that he would rather not see dug up. There is a grief-crazed widow and a tortured, homosexual high-school teacher named Frank Sherwood whose solace consists in stealing to the roof of his boarding house and gazing through a telescope at happier planets. Frank is occasionally joined in this activity by the widows only remaining son (she lost the other in the war), a dreamy, incipiently alcoholic youth who steals a plane at the local air show and disappears, like Icarus, into a sun so bright it seemed more silver than gold.
All of this suggests a novelistic recasting of Winesburg, Ohio or Spoon River Anthology. The difference is that Mallon, though he flirts with the gothic, is interested in creating more than a gallery of small-town grotesques. When the retired colonel, Horace Sinclair, is portrayed sipping his glass of iced tea and not looking up from his copy of Ivanhoe, we sense that Mallon, like Sir Walter Scott, is trying (as in Mallons earlier novels Henry and Clara, Aurora 7, and my favorite, Arts and Sciences) to make the past stand out as something more than an object of nostalgia. It is certainly more than this for Horace, who is permitted the following, perhaps too pointed, reverie:
The past. Of all the advice that Horace Sinclair received from his fellow Owossoans the piece he most disliked was the injunction against living so much in the past. It always assumed that the past, while perhaps not a bad place, was too easy a spot for anyone to live in; that abiding there was an escape that didnt challenge the mind . Horace knew that living in the past demanded much more effort than living in the here and now.Nobly put, though the novel is more comfortable when embodying this view in character and action, as it mostly does.
The heroines affair with the priapic union organizer Jack Riley, like Americas affair with Thomas E. Dewey, doesnt pan out, though when she eventually lapses into the Republican arms of Peter Cox she tells him, Wherever we go, Im still going to be a Democrat, to which he replies, At least I know the worst (Im not giving anything away; the surprises are all in the way this reversal is effected). A minor pleasure of this novel is its unobtrusive literary references. When the more bookish inhabitants of Owosso talk about Ross Lockridges Raintree Country, The Naked and the Dead, and even classics such as Ivanhoe and Paradise Lost, it sounds unforced (fug you, Anne tells one of her suitors, having just put down her copy of The Naked and the Dead).
One of the more egregious slogans of the Sixties was the personal is the political. It is egregious not because it is altogether false but because it is a kind of antidote to subtlety. The political, along with the literary, is mostly a matter of personal choice; love is something else, at least according to Peter Cox, who as the Truman-Dewey campaign winds down is given some of the best dialogue: Youre in love with me, Anne. Its not a political or a literary decision you get to make. Its the simple truth. Im not an idea, and its not my fault that Im richer and better-looking than Jack. Normally when a contemporary novelist tries something overtly historical the result is the forced transplanting into another era of alien ideas. Thomas Mallon manages to seal his Owossoans off from the present without rendering them humanly unrecognizable.
Peter Schwendener has written for The American Scholar and other publications
more from this author