Accidental Critic: Fellow Travelers


You think you were my first love
You think you were my first love
But you’re wrong
You were the only one
Who’s come and gone
— “I Know Very Well How I Got My Name,” by Morrissey

Guest review by James Scalzitti

Thomas Mallon’s Fellow Travelers, published in 2007, has gotten a second life recently, as an opera. In 2016 it premiered at Cincinnati Opera, and in March Lyric Opera of Chicago will stage four performances at the Athenaeum Theatre.

The book, which I picked up a few years ago and only this January began reading to prepare for the opera, is a beautifully-written tale steeped in heartache, sadness and melancholy. It was a story that was painful to read at times, though I never wanted to put it down; it has affected me as deeply as any work ever has.

The two characters at the center of Fellow Travelers—Timothy Laughlin, a cub reporter turned staffer for a U.S. senator; and Hawkins “Hawk” Fuller, a State Department official—could have been real men living and working in Eisenhower-era Washington. If I had been born in another time, and another place, either of them could have been me.

Tim and Hawk are lovers in a dangerous time, for the Eisenhower era was the height not only of the Red Scare, HUAC, and Senator Joe McCarthy’s anti-Communist crusades, but of the Lavender Scare, a sweeping assault on homosexual government employees. An executive order signed by Ike granted authority to federal agents and department heads to fire employees indulging in “sexual perversion,” and more than 1,000 federal agents were mobilized to interrogate suspects, investigate their pasts, and force the outed to resign. Rather than face the humiliation of losing their jobs because of their sexual orientation, some chose suicide. In its wake, about 10,000 gay people lost their jobs in civil service.

As such, Tim and Hawk’s love is one that dares not speak its name. It’s an uneven love, though. Tim is lovestruck and adores the older (by about six years, I imagine) Hawk, despite Tim being an anti-Communist, devout Catholic Republican who is tormented by his love for other men—especially his obsessive love for Hawk. Hawk, in turn, is incapable of saying to Tim, “I love you.”

Fellow Travelers begins in 1991, goes back to the 1950s, then comes back to the 1990s in the end; so you already know by the time Tim and Hawk meet that they will not remain together. At the start of the book, Hawk, then a successful (and married) diplomat, learns of Tim’s death. As we get to the end of the tale it isn’t inconceivable that Tim’s dying thoughts were of Hawk. Now that would be operatic.

Though I’m looking forward to the opera, I wish Fellow Travelers would be made into a film. Only a film could really capture the sweeping historical context of the book, in addition to the intimacy of the love story.

A movie could do a great job of bringing us into the 1950s as Mallon does, with music of the era. The pages just seep with music that sets and reflects the moods, music that just draws you into the story, the time and place. Whether it’s “How High the Moon,” “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You,” or “Secret Love,” the songs express the emotions and seem to speak for the characters when they don’t, or can’t.

Mallon’s writing made me fall for these characters and their world. Because I felt as though I was so deeply involved in this world, I was pained each time—and there were multiple times—Hawk treated Tim cruelly. I felt the pain of Tim’s repeated heartbreak and lifelong pining for Hawk. You can say that Hawk treated Tim cruelly for the younger man’s own good, because he knew their love couldn’t last, certainly not in the time and world they lived in; or maybe he was just that cruel.

As painful as this was to read at times—maybe because the story of the ill-fated lovers could have been that of any gay and bisexual men of that era, living in the shadows and suppressing their true nature in order to survive, personally and professionally—most of the time I didn’t want this story to end. 

I wanted to believe that maybe somehow it would turn out alright for these two. But for so many gays and lesbians of that time, happily ever after was not an option, no matter how deep their love.

Beautifully written, every chapter of this book felt like poetry to me. Yet like a lot of beautiful art, it was full of sorrow. Every so often the story took a turn that teased me with the prospect of lasting happiness for Tim and Hawk, but just as soon the hope was dashed. 

Even so, I’ll treasure this book, for the way it brought me to another time and place, and for the way it ensures that we will remember all those who had to be silent and may have thought they’d be forgotten.

Even in its final sentence, Fellow Travelers took one last jab at my heart, and as my throat tightened, I wanted to cry. But it was worth the pain. If you attend Fellow Travelers the opera, and hear a guy sniffling away as the lights go up, it’ll probably be me.

James Scalzitti hears a soundtrack to every story, and knows that in a perfect world the best stories would be made into movies, preferably by John Hughes. He believes the answers to life’s deepest questions can be found in the lyrics of Morrissey. He has been a reporter, editor, bouncer, government flack, but always a writer, and ever hopeful.

 

Fellow Travelers at the Lyric Opera

Fellow Travelers at Penguin Random House

Fellow Travelers at Thomas Mallon’s Website