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An unsatisfying mix of the political and the personal


Fellow Travelers
By Thomas Mallon
Pantheon, 354 pp., $25

Such was his impact on American politics that 50 years after his death, Senator Joseph McCarthy still troubles the American collective consciousness. To this day, a few right-wing radio talkers periodically try to try to put a patriotic spin on the senator's legacy of hatred . McCarthy played a large, unsympathetic role in "Good Night , and Good Luck," George Clooney's 2005 film. And he plays an important role here, too, in Thomas Mallon's seventh novel.

Best known for going after communists -- real and imagined -- in American government, McCarthy was equally obsessed with homosexuals, who were, he believed, more vulnerable to blackmail and thus more dangerous to US security than their heterosexual compatriots. In his era, and despite the rumors that swirled around the private lives of McCarthy and his young associate Roy Cohn, the government conducted an aggressive campaign of persecution against homosexuals, encouraging the private betrayals of gay co-workers and firing scores of State Department employees.

The American scene has changed since McCarthy's day , with lesbian celebrities coming out on daytime TV and pairs of men waving wedding rings in front of the Massachusetts State House. But feelings of guilt and shame, employment discrimination, and various kinds of public persecution are still among the burdens of the minority orientation, and in "Fellow Travelers," Mallon does a good job of conveying those burdens. The sad tones of shame -- whether stemming from same-sex intimacy or a drinking problem -- run through this novel like a bass line through a jazz ensemble's nightclub act.

In fact, with its extremely leisurely pace, wandering riffs on a variety of subjects, and wide-spaced repetitions, the book has a jazz-like feel to it that will charm certain readers and raise a welter of impatience in others.

Against the background of McCarthy's shenanigans, in particular the Army-McCarthy hearings that marked the beginning of the end of the senator's years in the sun, Mallon sketches out a love affair between the fictional Hawkins Fuller , a confident, almost impossibly handsome employee of the State Department, and Tim Laughlin , a younger senatorial aide who is less self-assured than his lover by a factor of a hundred. It's a promising idea, to mix the political and personal in this way. Some marvelous novels depend upon the same pattern: Pasternak's "Doctor Zhivago" comes to mind, as do Robert Stone's "A Flag for Sunrise," Herta Muller's "The Appointment , " and Alan Furst's "The World at Night." Mallon, who lives in D.C. , knows the city well and has obviously spent a lot of time researching the McCarthy era, and he peppers his narrative with historical details and personages. Dozens of well-known, real-life characters make cameo appearances: Nixon, Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Estes Kefauver, Mary McGrory. Add to this a mellifluous prose peppered with grace notes ("Tim was still struggling to work out the algebra of blackmail" ) and the pieces would seem to be in place for a magisterial tale of love and power.

Somehow, though, even with his obvious skills, and despite a nice ending, Mallon never brings the power of the story to bear. Though they're interesting enough, his almost compulsive wanderings -- Korean War atrocities, Soviet thuggishness, Catholic stridency, State Department bureaucracy -- serve to dilute rather than heighten the book's central tension. Perhaps this is because the central tension itself comes from a relationship so sad and unequal that neither gay nor straight readers are likely to be emotionally captivated.

Hawkins and Laughlin are shown together in often - truncated encounters that span the years 1953 to 1957. The half-dozen sex scenes are fairly graphic, if brief; the sense of furtiveness, and the possibility for blackmail, loss of employment, loss of friendships, and loss of mental stability, are ever present. Laughlin, a devout Catholic through most of the book, brings things to life when he struggles between his faith and his body; Hawkins's breezy wit can be amusing; and Mary Johnson, an important friend to both, is a beautifully drawn character. What dampens the fires of compassionate interest, though, is the difficulty of caring about either the self-involved, emotionally stunted, and ultimately cruel "Hawk" or the childish, blindly infatuated, pitifully passive "Skippy." Granted, at the start of the relationship, Laughlin is a virginal 20-something in a sexually repressed era, but after a while it becomes hard to buy the extent of his worship of the glamorous, slightly older Hawkins, the "near-hysteria" of joy he feels on their one road trip together, or that he knows he would "tell any lie, deny even Christ, for one more touch of Hawkins' hand."

All through the story, which winds as lazily and often as pleasantly as a river in summer, I wondered if I'd feel differently about the lovers if one of them was a woman. But a writer of Mallon's depth and abilities forces us beyond relatively superficial distinctions like gender and sexuality and down into the soul. Unfortunately, neither of the main souls he has chosen to create here has anything like the tortured complexity of Stone's drunken anthropologist or Pasternak's love-torn doctor. Are there people like Hawkins and Laughlin in real life? Of course. Is their relationship a sufficiently compelling subject for a novel? Not in Mallon's hands and not here; not for this reader , at least.

Roland Merullo's next novel, out in October, is "Breakfast With Buddha."