The McCarthy era is not just the backdrop for this story of forbidden love; the context of reactionary intolerance is the plot’s very fabric. Tim Laughlin, an Irish Catholic from New York, comes to Washington after his college graduation in 1953 and becomes an aide to Senator Charles Potter, one of several characters in this novel drawn from the pages of history. Laughlin also embarks on a relationship with State Department official Hawkins Fuller, a handsome cad who seems to hold the entire world, but especially Joe McCarthy and his henchmen, in contempt. Laughlin’s conflicted admiration for McCarthy (Potter, Laughlin’s boss, serves on McCarthy’s committee) is rooted in his religiosity, which also makes his homosexual affair especially problematic. Laughlin takes the extreme step of enlisting in the Army in order to end the affair but also to engage more directly in the fight against Communism. His absence from Washington is more painful than either man expects, and when Laughlin returns they can’t help but resume, despite Fuller’s recent marriage and impending fatherhood. The stakes for both men in a time when homosexuals were deemed security risks are clear, and yet neither is particularly adept at hiding their affection. Laughlin’s secret is known by Potter’s chief aide and a sympathetic journalist; Fuller practically flaunts his power over Laughlin once he has been accused by a co-worker, investigated and, thanks to his calm manipulation of the lie-detector, cleared. The stakes for the nation were high as well, and far more complex. As demonstrated by the brutal suppression of the Hungarian uprising, an event that moves Laughlin greatly, McCarthy’s efforts in fighting Communism, if not his excesses, had some justification, Mallon seems to be saying. At the same time, it was an era of discrimination against minorities, women and homosexuals, a hypocrisy that McCarthy and so many others in government helped foster. If, on occasion, the book reads a bit too much like a transcript of Senate hearings, and is almost never lyrical, it is a compelling fiction and one that has the distinct ring of truth.
Fellow Travellers, by Thomas Mallon. Pantheon, May 2007. $25.00