Historian Alfred L. Clayton, born in 1936, “the lonely only child of an elderly Republican couple,” named after Governor “Alf” Landon of Kansas, loser to President Roosevelt in a landslide, has been requested to write his “memories and impressions of the Presidential Administration of Gerald R. Ford (1974-1977), for Written Symposium on Same to Be Published in” RETROSPECT, the triquarterly journal of the Northern New England Association of American Historians (NNEAAH). The Ford years coincided with a period of turmoil in Clayton’s marriage, when he abandoned his wife Norma (the “Queen of Disorder”) for Genevieve (“the Perfect Wife”), the trim and elegant spouse of Brent Mueller, a young assistant professor and pioneer of deconstructionist criticism in the English department at Wayward College, where Clayton has been teaching and trying to finish his biography of President Buchanan.
In this club sandwich of a novel, each layer has to do with union — Clayton’s effort to take care of his family (especially his three children) even though he is having an affair, his desperate search for a key to Buchanan’s character that would unify his biography and bring it to a close, and Buchanan’s own futile efforts to appease the South, observe the letter of the law in his enforcement of the Constitution, and thus hold the Union together.
Nobody writes better about the contemporary scene than Updike, but there is remarkably little public history in the novel, so that the only substantial connection made between the administrations of Buchanan and Ford is a psychological one as Alf probes Buchanan’s love life in order to reach some perspective on his own. As a meditation on how the historian and biographer interpret the past and attempt to bridge the gaps in the evidence, the novel succeeds brilliantly.
Sources for Further Study
Chicago Tribune. November 1, 1992, XIV, p. 1.
The Christian Science Monitor. November 27, 1992, p. 13.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. November 1, 1992, p. 3.
The New York Review of Books. XXXIX, December 17, 1992, p. 45.
The New York Times Book Review. XCVII, November 1, 1992, p. 11.
Newsweek. CXX, November 9, 1992, p. 68.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIX, August 17, 1992, p. 485.
Time. CXL, November 9, 1992, p. 80.
The Wall Street Journal. October 28, 1992, p. A16.
The Washington Post Book World. XXII, November 1, 1992, p. 1.