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Book review: George W. Bush is the star of ‘Landfall,’ Thomas Mallon’s latest historical novel

April 23, 2019

“Landfall,” the newest historical novel from Thomas Mallon, brings his recent political trilogy to an inspired close. “Watergate” (2012) has Richard Nixon at its center. The subtitle of “Finale” (2015) is “A Novel of the Reagan Years.”

As he did in those recent novels, Mallon structures “Landfall” around a sitting president and the historical and fictional figures who surround him.

That president is George W. Bush, from as far back as his first misguided entry into the Texas political arena to his second presidency.

The novel’s primary plot, however, bookends itself between the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq and the disaster — both natural and political — of Hurricane Katrina.

Mallon’s George W. Bush is an anomaly: “Half the time he was without self-confidence; the other half he spilled an excess of it.” The author surrounds his iteration of Bush with the likes of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Tony Blair and Vladimir Putin.

The women surrounding Bush are fascinating creations, as well. Barbara Bush, the president’s mother, is a prowling lioness. “When she sees Rumsfeld relegated to a political dinner table with the Carters, we are told by the former first lady that “she couldn’t have devised a nicer piece of penance for him if she’d drawn up the seating chart herself.”

Laura Bush seems to be more interested in the books she is reading rather than in what is going on in the country.

And there must be a particular shout-out to Mallon’s portrait of former Texas governor Ann Richards, whose explicit observations about, well, almost anything are the unequivocal comic relief of the book. When, for example, she hears the president’s declaration that taking on gang life will be one part of his wife’s initiative towards at-risk youth, Mallon’s Richards quips, “Those Crips are going to be clamoring for library cards from Watts to the South Side of Chicago.”

But if there is a Mallon creation that commands supreme attention, it has to be his exquisite rendering of Condoleezza Rice. She is someone who works hard at circumspection yet wants desperately to please the president — and to stay on the good side of the women in his family.

She is a complicated individual. She is, for example, confused by her own personal response to Rumsfeld: “She detested him, and because she did she found herself, at moments, actually liking him.”

As he is wont to do, Mallon also provides a completely fictional parallel plot with a love affair at its center to augment his fictionalized plot of historical figures.

Unhappily married Ross Weatherall is the director of the country’s Homeland Heritage Division, which is presently “spending its $300 million on a sturdy array of middle-of-the-road efforts, heavy on historical lessons and citizenship-building.”

A disenchanted Ross will keep Bush up to date on life in New Orleans post-Katrina, especially after the president’s shameful decision to fly over the city rather than actually visit it.

Allison O’Connor is a civilian lawyer for the Department of the Army. She is also unafraid to straightforwardly tell Bush the truth about what she has seen in Iraq. She is sure enough of herself to tell the president about the war: “Embrace the suck.”

As teenagers, Ross and Allison meet “cute” at Bush’s very first political rally in West Texas. Eventually they will end up with a profound respect for each other’s positions as politicos and as people.

“Landfall” is another of Thomas Mallon’s riveting historical fictions. It captures the state of the American political landscape as it solidifies Mallon’s version of the sort of non-fiction “fiction” that Truman Capote claimed he “invented” with his remarkable “In Cold Blood.”

“Landfall” acquits itself so well that it makes us wonder what kind of book Mallon has planned for our country’s current administration.

Steven Whitton is a retired Professor of English.