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Panic and Fear
Thomas Mallon's Two Moons

by Doug Childers

Thomas Mallon's new historical novel, Two Moons, wrestles engagingly with a profound question: what do you do for security when everything around you seems to be in flux?

The year is 1877, and America, already limping through Reconstruction, is just beginning to fathom how profoundly corrupt the outgoing Grant administration was. The Hayes administration is instituting reforms that play up the Republican Party's responsibility for the whole mess, and railroad strikes--and riots--loom. Perhaps most troubling, the prospect for a speedy economic recovery after a four-year-long decline seems grim. The news isn't all bad--electricity is about to become widespread in the bigger cities, and the telephone is being talked about as the next world-shaking invention. But even good change is unsettling, and Mallon's characters can only wish for something good to happen.

Indeed, Mallon's heroine, Cynthia May, a thirty-five-year-old widow who lost her husband in the Civil War and her daughter from diphtheria shortly thereafter, is merely hoping to shore herself up financially by applying for a job as a human 'computer' at the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. (In the days before electrical lights, observatories could be built in 'big' cities.) The job--calculating the formulas that interpret the raw data gathered by the astronomers--relies on strong math skills, which she has in abundance, and it sounds impressive to our ears today, dependent as we are on chip-based computers for such tasks.

Two Moons
307 pp.

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But Cynthia, as morbidly realistic as she is quick-witted, understands the meager gains to be had from the job: in a society that doesn't reward smart, independent women in proportion to their intelligence, a clear line will always separate her from the astronomers (all men, of course) who get the real security and glory to be had from searching the skies diligently for new wonders.

Unless, of course, she happens to fall in love with one of the astronomers.

It's not a likely match between the 'middle-aged' widow and Hugh Allison, the handsome, twenty-seven-year-old Harvard graduate who seems more interested in esoteric theories than in straight science. But then, they're both iconoclasts, in their own ways, and they're equally driven by abiding fears about the future. For Cynthia, the reason is simple: she's scared of going through life impoverished. Hugh's fear is decidedly more complicated--and resoundingly modern. He rejects the older astronomers' notion that immortal glory is to be had in new scientific discoveries, telling Cynthia that "I suspect a comet is the most awful collection of debris. It may look like a gas lamp over there, but that's just the light it takes from the Sun." Far from telling us something important in their hurtling, crisscrossing circles, the planets and the stars merely mimic our own equally blind and meaningless spinnings. But if the astronomers are ambitiously pursuing something that amounts to nothing but dust and ashes, that brings poor agnostic Hugh up against...that's right, dear reader: meaninglessness and the existentialist's dark abyss.

Hugh is scared, in short, of being forever lost and forgotten in a world that bounces darkly, willy-nilly, on.

Of course, most of us who hover over the abyss merely close our eyes and tremble. But not Hugh. With a fervor accelerated by an apparent malaria infection (the Observatory lies in a mosquito-infested swamp), he dreams up a scheme to use a powerful, French-made aplanatic-mirror projector to cast his (and Cynthia's) reflected images into deep space, where they will, in Hugh's fevered imagination, experience the best immortality we can find in this dark world.

Naturally, no love story--especially a good old-fashioned one in which the lovers struggle so mightily against heartless fate--is complete without a villain, and in Two Moons, he takes the form of Roscoe Conkling, a real-life U.S senator popularly known around Washington as the War God for his manly physique and his love for fights, political or otherwise. But like everyone else in Two Moons, he's worried about his future. As a Republican who had been close to the Grant administration, he's finding his power and influence on the wane, but he's not one to walk away from a challenge--including the amorous conquest of difficult, independent women like Cynthia May. But it isn't mere sexual attraction that drives him to Cynthia. "She was fighting her way toward some new kind of life," Mallon writes, "and [Conkling] yearned...to have her provoke a revitalization in him as well." Cynthia--playing Venus to Conkling's Mars--finds him repulsive, but when she realizes his power over the Custom House will help Hugh get his projector into the country without paying impossibly high import duties, she gives in to his advances. But endeavoring to outsmart a War God is kind of like the story about the mouse who ties a bell around the cat's neck: your only hope lies in his staying asleep, and you never know when he's going to wake up and realize what's going on.


Two Moons is that rare achievement, an historical novel that so completely transcends its genre that even readers who shirk historical subjects will find it makes for addictive reading. But it's not a mere speed trick--a writer's gimmick--that propels readers through the novel. Mallon writes in a patient voice whose expectation of our extended attention is commiserate with his historical subject. His sentence structure, the length of his chapters and the casual, unhurried pace with which he unfolds his carefully layered story matches up wonderfully with a past era's slower pace. Readers today might find themselves admiring a contemporary writer's quick, throwaway wit or speed (as if novels were in competition with action flicks), but they rarely get to enjoy the sort of layered complexities in which Mallon works so well.

Much of the credit for Two Moons's success must lie, of course, with Mallon's skills in creating strong characters whose plights move us emotionally. But he is equally skilled at making his characters' long-lost world come alive to modern readers (an indispensable skill for an historical novelist, of course). Some of this historical evocation comes from strong research being used in the obvious ways--through extended city descriptions, clothing descriptions, etc. But Mallon is often far more subtle, and it shows his talent at imagining his characters in a fully articulated (if historically distant) world. One of the better--if small--examples of this comes in a seemingly idle discussion among the astronomers about the prospect of the city being lit by electric lamps:


"Allison," said Henry Paul. "Think of a whole city, every single house shining with its own electric lights, tens of thousands of them."

"We'd have even more trouble seeing than we do now," said Harkness, imagining the astronomers done out of their nights.

"But think how much work everyone else would accomplish," offered Henry Paul.

"I don't know," murmured the commodore. "I'd miss blowing out my lamp."


The commodore's 'murmured' line--said, it seems, almost to himself--is a particularly neat writer's trick, and it gives us a good indication of Mallon's subtle, deceptively complex skills. Henry Paul and Harkness's lines serve a straightforward function, sketching quite easily the awe we today could easily imagine nineteenth century individuals feeling at the prospect of widespread electricity. But the commodore's line is another sort of beast altogether: by letting the commodore express a wistful love of an antiquated habit, we for the first time understand what such a forgotten daily task might have felt like to someone who had performed that task all his life and isn't so sure he wants to lose a part of himself in the name of progress. And yet look at how little space Mallon gives to the commodore's aside--that he manages to pack such a complex idea into such little space is indicative of intelligent, fully conscious writing on a rarified level, indeed.

This leads us to what is possibly Mallon's most important skill as a novelist: he knows--in a very real sense--what he is up to thematically, and he manages to make virtually every sentence serve a higher thematic purpose. And this, I think, is as good a definition of a mature novelist as any. As a novelist who understands and respects all aspects of his art, he is exemplary, and Two Moons shows him at his best.


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