Fellow Travelers

Written by Thomas Mallon
Review by Lisa Ann Verge

Mallon, the critically acclaimed author of Bandbox and Dewey Defeats Truman, mixes McCarthy-era politics, the battle against international communism, and the underground lives of homosexuals in this uneven novel.

Hawkins Fuller is a handsome, charismatic employee of the State Department’s Bureau of Congressional Relations. He’s also gay, sexually insatiable, and without a conscience. One of his victims is Tim Laughlin, a young senatorial aide, who Hawkins initiates (graphically) into sexual pleasure. Tim falls so hopelessly in love that he puts up with Hawkins’ rules: No exclusivity, no talk of love, no promises. While they carry on their clandestine affair, they puzzle over the mysteries not being resolved in various government hearings. When Tim finally realizes how ugly politics can be, he leaves Hawkins and the senator’s employ, and joins the army. There, he seeks peace in Catholicism and the struggles of the Hungarians. He tries to forget Hawkins and politics—only to be drawn back to both, which results in a bitter, ugly betrayal.

Mallon certainly knows his stuff, but Fellow Travelers places a heavy burden on the reader to understand congressional hearings sixty years in the past, and thus lacks the author’s usual deft historical touch. Furthermore, the fact that the main characters are only observers in the gallery—never really in danger—muffles any dramatic effect. Even when Hawkins himself is suspected of being a “sexual deviant,” the brief experience only proves him to be more monstrously inhuman. Ultimately, that’s the most disturbing aspect of the novel: The attempt to evoke affection for a most chilling, smug, and unrepentant character. This novel is a tough read; I’ll put my hopes on Mallon’s next release.