Thomas Mallon Essay - Critical Essays

Mallon, Thomas


Thomas Mallon 1951-

American novelist, nonfiction writer, critic, biographer, and essayist.

The following entry presents an overview of Mallon's career through 2002.

Mallon has attracted popular and critical attention for his novels of historical fiction, such as Aurora 7 (1991) and Dewey Defeats Truman (1997), works which construct fictional narratives around actual historical figures and events. His plots typically focus on characters on the periphery of milestone events. For example, Henry and Clara (1994) follows the couple sitting next to President Abraham Lincoln when he was assassinated. Mallon uses these characters to portray the true emotional and social impact of such landmark occasions. An accomplished critic and editor, Mallon has also published nonfiction works on a wide range of subjects, including Stolen Words: Forays into the Origins and Ravages of Plagiarism (1989), which explores the effects of plagiarism, and In Fact: Essays on Writers and Writing (2001), which discusses the craft of writing.

Biographical Information

Mallon was born on November 2, 1951, in Glen Cove, New York, to Arthur Vincent, a salesman, and Caroline Mallon, a homemaker. He received his B.A. from Brown University in 1973 and attended graduate school at Harvard University, earning his M.A. in 1974 and Ph.D. in 1978. He would later revisit his experiences at Harvard for his first novel, Arts and Sciences: A Seventies Seduction (1988). While interviewing for teaching positions in 1979, Mallon met biographer Phyllis Rose at Wesleyan University. They discussed a writing project Mallon had planned and Rose introduced him to a publisher, resulting in A Book of One's Own: People and Their Diaries (1984). Mallon eventually accepted a professorship at Vassar, teaching English from 1979 to 1991. He also lived in England for a year as a visiting scholar at St. Edmund's College, Cambridge University. Mallon left academia in 1991 and became the literary editor at Gentlemen's Quarterly (GQ). His essays and reviews have appeared in GQ, Harper's, New Yorker, American Scholar, Yale Review, Architectural Digest, New York Times Book Review, and Washington Post Book World. In 1986 Mallon was awarded a Rockefeller Fellowship and in 1994 received the Ingram Merrill Award for outstanding work as a writer. In 1998 he served as chairman of the fiction judges for the National Book Awards.

Major Works

Mallon's first novel, Arts and Sciences, draws on autobiographical elements of Mallon's own life. The plot follows Artie Dunne, a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, as he tries to succeed at college and falls in love with a sophisticated classmate, Angela Downing. Aurora 7 depicts events in the lives of a variety of people on May 24, 1962, the day astronaut Scott Carpenter performed the dangerous feat of orbiting the earth three times. That morning, a young boy named Gregory Noonan—who is fascinated by Carpenter's mission—vanishes from his school. His parents must deal with Gregory's disappearance along with other pressures like his father's business troubles and his mother's difficulty with living up to the early 1960s ideal of domesticity. Henry and Clara is a fictional portrait of Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris, the couple who sat in the theater box with President and Mrs. Abraham Lincoln the night Lincoln was fatally shot by John Wilkes Booth. In Mallon's account, Henry and Clara's lives are blighted by their presence at the assassination, but they confront other challenges as well. Brought up as stepbrother and stepsister in a wealthy family in upstate New York, they encounter parental opposition to their love affair. Henry is moody and temperamental as a boy and these aspects of his character become more pronounced after his experiences as a soldier in the Civil War and the night at Ford's Theater, where he suffers a near-fatal knife wound at the hands of Booth. Henry must also endure questions about his conduct that night and whether he could have saved the President.

The plot of Dewey Defeats Truman unfolds in presidential candidate Thomas E. Dewey's hometown of Owosso, Michigan, during the summer of 1948, when the heavily favored Dewey campaigned against Harry Truman for the presidency. Beguiled by the “certainty” of Dewey's election, the residents of Owosso make preparations for an onslaught of tourists and the reflected glory of their claims to their famous native son. Several subplots advance the narrative as well. In one, a young would-be writer named Anne Macmurray must choose between two suitors—a well-meaning union organizer or a wealthy, arrogant Republican. In another, an elderly resident named Horace Sinclair offers opposition to the town's tourist trappings because they will expose secrets from another era. The novel Two Moons (2000) is a somber meditation on science, mortality, and political power. The story features a love affair between a Civil War widow, Cynthia May, and a younger astronomer, Hugh Allison, whose dreams go beyond the mere charting of stars. Cynthia and Hugh work together at the United States Naval Observatory, paradoxically located in the swampy Foggy Bottom section of Washington, D.C. With the discovery of two moons in orbit around Mars, they hope to receive funding for a better facility and to be located beyond the reach of Foggy Bottom's mosquito population. Their work draws the attention of Republican power-broker Roscoe Conkling, whose attempts to help Hugh are motivated not by an interest in science, but rather by an attraction to Cynthia.

Mallon has also published a number of essay collections and nonfiction works. His first published work, Edmund Blunden (1983), creates a biographical portrait of the English World War I poet. A Book of One's Own surveys the work of more than one hundred diarists throughout history, including Samuel Pepys, Leonardo da Vinci, Virginia Woolf, and Lee Harvey Oswald. Mallon divides the writers into several different categories such as confessors, travelers, and apologists, using these to further examine the character of the authors. Stolen Words explores examples of plagiarism in academia, the sciences, and entertainment ranging from the seventeenth century to the 1980s. Mallon's 1993 book of essays, Rockets and Rodeos and Other American Spectacles, offers his take on certain distinctly American “spectacle” events, including a New York bank robbery trial, a rocket mission to study the Aurora Borealis, the Sundance Film Festival, and a vigil before an execution at the San Quentin penitentiary. In Fact: Essays on Writers and Writing presents a selection of essays and reviews that deal with the art of writing and the works of such modern authors as Don DeLillo, Tom Wolfe, Gore Vidal, and Siegfried Sassoon. In 2002 Mallon published Mrs. Paine's Garage and the Murder of John F. Kennedy, a nonfiction work that focuses on Ruth Paine, a woman who befriended Lee Harvey Oswald, the eventual assassin of President Kennedy. Using interviews and documented facts, Mallon creates a narrative portrait of the relationship between Ruth, Lee, and Lee's wife, Marina, as well as of Ruth's role in the criminal investigations after Kennedy's murder.

Critical Reception

Much of the critical discussion of Mallon's work has included debate over the validity of the genre of historical fiction, with several critics arguing that it is inappropriate for such authors as Mallon to speculate on the emotions and inner thoughts of historical figures. For example, some have debated whether Mrs. Paine's Garage and the Murder of John F. Kennedy should be considered a work of fiction or nonfiction because of Mallon's inclusion of conversations and events that deviate from the historical record. Other reviewers, however, have praised Mallon's narratives, noting that his fiction provides an emotional perspective to the objective details of history. Algis Valiunas has remarked, “Mallon's recurrent theme is the way men and events that will go down in history alter the trajectory of ordinary people's lives, as the gravitational field of a star or planet bends a passing beam of light.” Scholars have also commended Mallon for his ability to blend extensive historical research into the plots of his novels. James Kaufmann has stated, “When it comes to period detail, Mallon has perfect pitch.” Some reviewers have faulted Mallon's fiction for being overly nostalgic, but others have complimented his straightforward prose style and lack of pretense. Mallon's nonfiction works, particularly Stolen Words, have also received critical praise. Jon Saari has noted that, “At its best [Stolen Words] melds scholarship and detective fiction, assembling the evidence and showing the human drama that accompanies the act of plagiarism.”

Principal Works

Edmund Blunden (biography) 1983

A Book of One's Own: People and Their Diaries (nonfiction) 1984

Arts and Sciences: A Seventies Seduction (novel) 1988

Stolen Words: Forays into the Origins and Ravages of Plagiarism (nonfiction) 1989

Aurora 7 (novel) 1991

Rockets and Rodeos and Other American Spectacles (essays) 1993

Henry and Clara (novel) 1994

Dewey Defeats Truman (novel) 1997

Two Moons (novel) 2000

In Fact: Essays on Writers and Writing (essay and criticism) 2001

Mrs. Paine's Garage and the Murder of John F. Kennedy (nonfiction) 2002


William Cole (review date November-December 1984)

SOURCE: Cole, William. “Lighter-Than-Air Craft.” Saturday Review 10 (November-December 1984): 90.

[In the following excerpt, Cole argues that Mallon's study of diarists throughout history in A Book of One's Own is a “book cried out to be written.”]

This book cried out to be written, and the call was answered by Thomas Mallon in A Book of One's Own: People and Their Diaries. For him, the word “diary” embraces journals, day-books, commonplace books and, in some cases, writers' notebooks. Of the diarists quoted, Pepys is tops. He was quite a terrible fellow, groping the servant girls, mean to his wife, licking the boots of his superiors. But, in...

(The entire section is 371 words.)

Thomas D'Evelyn (review date 7 December 1984)

SOURCE: D'Evelyn, Thomas. Review of A Book of One's Own: People and Their Diaries, by Thomas Mallon. Christian Science Monitor 77, no. 11 (7 December 1984): B15.

[In the following review, D'Evelyn discusses Mallon's examination of the different styles of diarists and diaries in A Book of One's Own.]

Since most of us at one time or another, if not continuously, keep a diary, [A Book of One's Own: People and Their Diaries] will have wide appeal. Much more than an anthology of pages from published diaries, it is a nicely written account of, as it says in the subtitle, people and their diaries. Mallon has analyzed the people of the title into seven...

(The entire section is 489 words.)

George McCartney (review date April 1985)

SOURCE: McCartney, George. Review of A Book of One's Own: People and Their Diaries, by Thomas Mallon. American Spectator 18, no. 4 (April 1985): 46-7.

[In the following review, McCartney praises Mallon for presenting his subject matter in A Book of One's Own without trying to ascribe a grand theory to the overall work.]

What's the point of keeping a diary? Oscar Wilde knew. “One should always have something sensational to read in the train,” he had Gwendolyn Fairfax declare in The Importance of Being Earnest.

Gwendolyn makes her brief appearance in Thomas Mallon's A Book of One's Own: People and Their Diaries for what...

(The entire section is 1765 words.)

John R. Dunlap (review date May 1988)

SOURCE: Dunlap, John R. Review of Arts and Sciences: A Seventies Seduction, by Thomas Mallon. American Spectator 21, no. 5 (May 1988): 46.

[In the following review, Dunlap offers a positive assessment of Arts and Sciences, calling the novel “tightly plotted, witty, good humored, full of good sentiment, [and] utterly unsentimental.”]

Several years ago—in fact, the very year (1973) in which the plot of Thomas Mallon's first novel begins to unfold—Tom Wolfe wrote an essay on “The New Journalism,” wherein occurs a passing retrospective on Wolfe's five years in graduate school. Wolfe, doubtful of his ability to convey “the remotest...

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Hugh Kenner (review date February 1990)

SOURCE: Kenner, Hugh. “Stop, Thieves!” American Spectator 23, no. 2 (February 1990): 39-41.

[In the following review, Kenner argues that Mallon neglects to address several pertinent issues in Stolen Words: Forays into the Origins and Ravages of Plagiarism, but notes that Mallon did an admirable job with the subject despite such omissions.]

Writer? “A reader moved to emulation.”

—Saul Bellow

Jorge Luis Borges dreamed of a Universal Library from which every thinkable book could be shown to have been plagiarized; it would simply contain, printed and bound, all possible...

(The entire section is 2124 words.)

Lawrence Danson (review date 12 February 1990)

SOURCE: Danson, Lawrence. “You Said It.” Nation 250, no. 6 (12 February 1990): 208-10.

[In the following review, Danson notes that Mallon offers a very concrete and objective opinion of plagiarism in Stolen Words: Forays into the Origins and Ravages of Plagiarism.]

Plagiarism! The word strikes terror in the fainting authorial soul. If you've ever been a victim—ever seen your own well-wrought words come back to you in alienated majesty signed with someone else's name—you'll know why the word “violation,” more commonly used to describe another form of self-dispossession, is no exaggeration. And if you've ever looked carefully at your own words, as I've...

(The entire section is 1495 words.)

Jon Saari (review date spring 1990)

SOURCE: Saari, Jon. Review of Stolen Words: Forays into the Origins and Ravages of Plagiarism, by Thomas Mallon. Antioch Review 48, no. 2 (spring 1990): 255.

[In the following review, Saari evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of Stolen Words: Forays into the Origins and Ravages of Plagiarism, commenting that the work presents “the human drama that accompanies the act of plagiarism.”]

Plagiarism is a crime whose punishment is not always clear in Mallon's study [Stolen Words], which turns up some fascinating evidence of what constitutes this crime. Plagiarism, he points out, often has no clear legal context for righting wrongs and doling out...

(The entire section is 311 words.)

Michael Silverblatt (review date 3 February 1991)

SOURCE: Silverblatt, Michael. “Children of a Laser God.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (3 February 1991): 11.

[In the following review, Silverblatt criticizes Mallon for not investing enough in his characters in Aurora 7.]

On May 24, 1962, 11-year-old Gregory Noonan leaves his fourth-grade classroom and takes the railroad to Manhattan in order to join the crowd in Grand Central Station watching Scott Carpenter's Aurora 7 space flight on the huge monitors. The boy is space-mad, loony for the Mercury project, a would-be moon traveler. Shy, smart and uncommunicative (he already has trouble receiving kisses or saying “I love you” to close relatives), Gregory...

(The entire section is 908 words.)

John R. Dunlap (review date May 1991)

SOURCE: Dunlap, John R. Review of Aurora 7, by Thomas Mallon. American Spectator 24, no. 5 (May 1991): 51.

[In the following review, Dunlap examines how Mallon created the narrative structure of Aurora 7 and asserts that the novel is ultimately about the power of fate.]

On Thursday, May 24, 1962, at 7:45 a.m. EST, the second U.S. manned orbital space flight was undertaken when the Aurora 7 was launched from Cape Canaveral with astronaut Malcolm Scott Carpenter aboard. Although the flight made the intended three orbits within the anticipated five hours, Carpenter flubbed his retrofire maneuver during re-entry and overshot the expected landing...

(The entire section is 1248 words.)

Bettina Drew (review date 24 January 1993)

SOURCE: Drew, Bettina. “Gazing Clearly at ‘American Spectacles.’” Chicago Tribune Books (24 January 1993): 3, 7.

[In the following review, Drew comments that, although the prose in Rockets and Rodeos and Other American Spectacles is fair-minded and objective, Mallon's nationalism can be overwhelming and needlessly enthusiastic.]

Thomas Mallon's variegated collection of essays on American “spectacles,” [Rockets and Rodeos and Other American Spectacles,] outcome of his urge to cover the post-Challenger launching of the space shuttle Discovery, takes readers on a pleasantly idiosyncratic cross-country tour. Critic, novelist and literary editor of...

(The entire section is 997 words.)

Francis X. Rocca (review date July 1993)

SOURCE: Rocca, Francis X. Review of Rockets and Rodeos and Other American Spectacles, by Thomas Mallon. American Spectator 26, no. 7 (July 1993): 64-5.

[In the following review, Rocca praises Mallon for his skillful use of descriptive detail in Rockets and Rodeos and Other American Spectacles.]

Readers of TAS already know the work of Thomas Mallon; eight of the twelve pieces in this collection [Rockets and Rodeos and Other American Spectacles] were originally published here. Ranging in length from four to forty-two pages, and in setting from Florida to Alaska, they amount to an eclectic survey of our country in the last decade, from the viewpoint...

(The entire section is 1073 words.)

Theodore Pappas (review date 21 August 1994)

SOURCE: Pappas, Theodore. “Henry and Clara's Cruel Fate.” Chicago Tribune Books (21 August 1994): 5.

[In the following review, Pappas asserts that Mallon is faithful to both historical and literary concerns in Henry and Clara.]

Murder and mystery, an abusive and jealous husband, the savage killing of his wife, an attempted suicide, hints of insanity, the rich and famous in the national spotlight—one might think that the subject is not the forgotten tragic lives of the engaged couple who attended Ford's Theatre with President and Mrs. Lincoln on April 14, 1865, but rather the O. J. Simpson trial. And, in fact, the comparison is not altogether unjust. Both stories...

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Walter Goodman (review date 16 December 1996)

SOURCE: Goodman, Walter. “Looking Backward.” New Leader 79, no. 9 (16 December 1996): 26-8.

[In the following review, Goodman compliments Mallon's “engaging” prose style in Dewey Defeats Truman.]

Thomas Mallon's engaging new novel [Dewey Defeats Truman] brings memories of Sherwood Anderson and Edgar Lee Masters, of Booth Tarkington and John Updike and J. D. Salinger and other chroniclers of growing up or growing old in small-town America. Not that there is anything imitative here. Mallon demonstrates that well after Main Street has given way to shopping malls, looking backward can still yield home truths.

The title, of course, is...

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Richard Eder (review date 5 January 1997)

SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “Triumph without Victory.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (5 January 1997): 2.

[In the following review, Eder argues that Mallon is most successful in his description of individual details in Dewey Defeats Truman.]

On the school picnic, one imagines, Thomas Mallon's sandwiches would be cucumber and sardine instead of peanut butter and jelly. On the museum trip, he would be found in the basement examining the air-duct moldings. On the treasure hunt, he would come back, not with the Walt Disney video hidden by the teachers, but with somebody's lost and badly missed pocket diary.

Mallon did, in fact, produce a splendidly antic...

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Thomas Mallon and Michael Coffey (interview date 20 January 1997)

SOURCE: Mallon, Thomas, and Michael Coffey. “Thomas Mallon: Picturing History and Seeing Stars.” Publishers Weekly 244, no. 3 (20 January 1997): 380-81.

[In the following interview, Mallon discusses the major influences on his work and why he favors writing historical fiction.]

On the landing between the first and second floors of Thomas Mallon's condominium in Westport, Conn., there stands a black telescope the size of a boy. It is directed toward an upper window and the firmament beyond. “I haven't used it much yet,” admits Mallon, giving PW a tour of the house he shares with designer and longtime partner Bill Bodenschatz, “but I've always been...

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Herbert Mitgang (review date 26 January 1997)

SOURCE: Mitgang, Herbert. “Master of Detail.” Chicago Tribune Books (26 January 1997): 1, 6.

[In the following review, Mitgang compliments Mallon's use of historical detail in Dewey Defeats Truman.]

It takes a vivid imagination to turn the most famous presidential headline in modern newspaper history—“Dewey Defeats Truman”—into a work of fiction. Did the Chicago Daily Tribune editor develop an Excedrin headache the morning after that Page 1 banner appeared below the masthead, prematurely and incorrectly, when President Harry Truman was re-elected in November 1948?

The reader won't find the answer in Thomas Mallon's new novel...

(The entire section is 947 words.)

Edward Mandelson (review date 25 July 1997)

SOURCE: Mandelson, Edward. “The President That Never Was.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4921 (25 July 1997): 22.

[In the following review, Mandelson lauds the comedic elements in Dewey Defeats Truman, but notes that the novel is “lighter” than Henry and Clara.]

Thomas Mallon's fourth novel takes its title from the Chicago Tribune's 1948 election-night headline trumpeting the victory of the candidate favoured for president by the Tribune and virtually every other American newspaper. Exactly as all the opinion polls had predicted, the early returns showed that stiff-necked Thomas Dewey, the Republican Governor of New York, had trounced...

(The entire section is 639 words.)

Sally E. Parry (review date fall 1997)

SOURCE: Parry, Sally E. Review of Dewey Defeats Truman, by Thomas Mallon. Review of Contemporary Fiction 17, no. 3 (fall 1997): 246-47.

[In the following review, Parry discusses Mallon's perception and portrayal of historical events in Dewey Defeats Truman.]

Many people remember the hubris of Republicans in the fall of 1948 when they convinced, or thought they convinced, everyone that Thomas E. Dewey, the governor of New York, would be the next president of the United States. The shock of those Republicans—and of the Chicago Tribune in particular for printing up the premature headline “Dewey Defeats Truman”—is the impetus for Thomas Mallon's new...

(The entire section is 414 words.)

Katharine Weber (review date 9 April 2000)

SOURCE: Weber, Katharine. “Starry-Eyed.” Washington Post Book World (9 April 2000): 3.

[In the following review, Weber offers a positive assessment of Two Moons, commenting that “Mallon has a fabulous eye for the people at the edge of the historical picture.”]

It is a time when scientific discoveries and technological innovations are the stuff of daily headlines. Never before has mankind known so much about the natural world and our relationship to it. The more scientific information we accumulate, however, the more we embrace the paranormal, the otherworldly, the spiritual.

In this innovative time, many powerful people, while...

(The entire section is 779 words.)

Polly Morrice (review date 22 May 2000)

SOURCE: Morrice, Polly. “Observing Washington.” National Review 52, no. 9 (22 May 2000): 72-3.

[In the following review, Morrice argues that fans of Mallon's previous work will be pleased with Two Moons, noting Mallon's continuing use of “unfailingly graceful prose.”]

Toward the end of Thomas Mallon's 1994 novel Henry and Clara, the heroine Clara Rathbone reflects on a phenomenon of post-Civil War Washington, D.C.: the influx of female clerks who toil in government offices. For the beleaguered Clara, whose husband is sliding toward insanity, these women lead seductive lives; she envies their “impoverishment and freedom and [imagines] herself as...

(The entire section is 1017 words.)

Thomas Mallon and Bill Kauffman (interview date June 2000)

SOURCE: Mallon, Thomas, and Bill Kauffman. “Moonstruck: A Chat with Novelist Thomas Mallon.” American Enterprise 11, no. 4 (June 2000): 41-3.

[In the following interview, Mallon discusses politics, why he writes historical fiction, and why he focuses on bystanders to historical events.]

Fresh from The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne composed a campaign hagiography for presidential candidate Franklin Pierce, his old Bowdoin classmate. So it ought not startle us that Thomas Mallon—who has emerged in the last decade as one of the finer American novelists—earlier “assisted” Dan Quayle in the writing of his mortal memoir Standing Firm.


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Algis Valiunas (review date June 2000)

SOURCE: Valiunas, Algis. “Improving on History.” American Spectator 33, no. 5 (June 2000): 68-70.

[In the following review, Valiunas discusses the current popularity of historical fiction and notes how Mallon's Two Moons differs from other works within the genre.]

Even in the age of democracy, those men whose names win so much as a line in the history books are a precious few; so who speaks for the rest of us? It has been the traditional prerogative of the historical novelist, who portrays real men in imaginary circumstances and imaginary men in real circumstances, to assert the significance of those whom history cut out of the picture, to render momentous...

(The entire section is 2809 words.)

Robert Schmuhl (review date 21 January 2001)

SOURCE: Schmuhl, Robert. “Thomas Mallon Considers the Works of Some Literary Contemporaries and Predecessors.” Chicago Tribune Books (21 January 2001): 1, 4.

[In the following review, Schmuhl discusses Mallon's approach to literary criticism in In Fact: Essays on Writers and Writing.]

In the second paragraph of In Fact, Thomas Mallon regurgitates a sentence of professorial, publish-or-perish prose representative of the so-called scholarship coming out of literature departments nowadays. Gagging phrases that refer to “the ontic vacancy of raw diversity,” “a plurality of multiplicative inverses” and “orderly and sequential monogenesis” might mean...

(The entire section is 692 words.)

Michael Potemra (review date 28 January 2002)

SOURCE: Potemra, Michael. “American Beauty.” National Review 54, no. 1 (28 January 2002): 59-60.

[In the following excerpt, Potemra examines Mallon's characterization of Ruth Paine in Mrs. Paine's Garage and the Murder of John F. Kennedy.]

So you're at a party, and you meet a young couple. The husband is, rather obviously, a tough case. He's angry at the world—thinks everybody is either stupid, or out to get him, or both. But he and his wife speak Russian, and you want to improve your skills in that language, so you decide to get involved in the young couple's life. You make some calls and get the guy a job in a warehouse; and you give his wife a room in your...

(The entire section is 938 words.)

Further Reading


Allen, Brooke. “Painted into History.” New Criterion 13, no. 3 (November 1994): 78-80.

Allen praises Mallon's prose style in Henry and Clara, but expresses discomfort with Mallon's fictionalization of real people.

Friedman, Roger Davis. “Academia Nuts.” Chicago Tribune Books (20 March 1988): 5.

Friedman lauds the humor in Arts and Sciences, but argues that the novel encompasses an extremely limited world.

Kaufmann, James. “A Boy and the Space Race in 1962.” Chicago Tribune Books (3 February 1991): 7.

Kaufmann compliments Mallon for...

(The entire section is 259 words.)