There were a lot of things to dislike about Thomas E. Dewey, the 1948 Republican presidential candidate. There was his fussy mustache, for example, and his elevator shoes. There was the way he had his press secretary announce his candidacy, as if -- as Thomas Mallon writes in "Dewey Defeats Truman," his new historical novel -- "it was an afternoon appointment." And as disappointing as Dewey could seem from afar, he was even worse in person. "What they said about him was probably true," Mallon writes. "You had to know him really well to dislike him."
All that said, you don't get to know Thomas E. Dewey well enough in "Dewey Defeats Truman" to really work up much animosity toward him. In fact, he drops into the novel only once or twice, and Truman not at all. Instead, Mallon keeps his attention relentlessly focused on the residents of Dewey's hometown in Owosso, Michigan, in the months before the election, particularly on a love triangle between a young bookstore clerk (and budding writer) named Anne Macmurray and her two suitors: Jack, a driven UAW organizer, and Peter, a swaggering young Republican politician. This sounds like a corny set-up, and it is. Jack and Peter, introvert and extrovert, woo Anne in a grindingly predictable fashion; just when you think she's finally settled on one or the other, some Aunt Bea-ish matron will step in with a wink and say something like: "Let's give Peter an inning, too. I'm having a dinner party a week from tonight, and I'll put him across from you." (All that's missing are the exclamation points.) This is where I began penciling the word groan into the margins, and I soon found myself unable to stop.
One problem with "Dewey Defeats Truman" is that there's not much else going on besides this twee romantic drama. The candidates are absent from the book, and while the townsfolk are constantly having brow-furrowing discussions about the election's "issues," the discussion remains superficial -- this is a novel that doesn't feel grounded by the force of ideas. Mallon tries to inject some local political drama by having Owosso's residents debate the construction of an ecologically-unfriendly "heritage walk" in Dewey's honor, but no one seems to get very worked up about that, either.
Thomas Mallon is an estimable writer and critic; his regular essays in GQ are tart and savvy, and his last novel, "Henry and Clara," was praised by none other than John Updike as one of the best books of 1995. I didn't read that earlier novel, but I found "Dewey Defeats Truman" surprisingly (almost shockingly) frictionless and frothy. Reading it, you feel like you've been promised a scotch, but handed a root beer.