History gives 'Travelers' real intrigue

Sex and secrets orbit the 1950s' Army-McCarthy hearings.

Published May 13, 2007

Thomas Mallon's fiction style has a chameleon quality that well suits his bent for writing historical novels. Whether it's the stately prose of Henry and Clara, set during and after the Civil War, or the snappy patter of Bandbox, a tale of journalistic high jinks in the 1920s, his style is always beautifully tailored to his subjects.

Mallon's prose dons a crisp white shirt and a navy blue serge suit for Fellow Travelers, a romance set amid the Army-McCarthy hearings in Washington, D.C., in the early 1950s and told in a muscular, straightforward style reminiscent of John O'Hara's short stories .

Fresh out of college and brimming with idealism, Tim Laughlin comes to the nation's capital ready to join the Cold War. Devoutly Catholic and anticommunist, Tim is also agonizingly, given the times gay, although he's still a virgin.

Not for long. He takes one look at Hawkins Fuller, a charismatic, cynical State Department official, and falls helplessly in love.

Hawk, as the moony Tim is soon calling him, gets the younger man a fascinating job on the staff of a senator. Their relationship may be a love affair to Tim, but Hawk is clearly in it for the sex and, perhaps more important, the secrets Tim can gather.

Tim's job immerses him in the drama of Sen. Joseph McCarthy's notorious vendetta, which targeted gays in the government as well as communists. As Hawk says of one of McCarthy's victims, "What's his problem? Pink or lavender?" There is bitter hypocrisy at the heart of that attack – McCarthy's chief attack dog, lawyer Roy Cohn, is widely rumored to be gay himself.

Mallon fleshes out his meticulous historical research with a sharp eye for pop culture details and a cast of vividly drawn characters, many of them real people. Fellow Travelers is a compelling tale and a convincing picture of an era in which the most important wardrobe item for many in Washington was a mask.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at (727) 893-8435 or bancroft@sptimes.com


Fellow Travelers

By Thomas Mallon

Pantheon, 354 pages, $25