Friday, July 9, 2010

"In the Fullness of Time" by Vincent Nicolosi

Summary: In the days following President Kennedy’s assassination, Tristan Hamilton begins looking back on his life, particularly his involvement in President Warren G. Harding’s candidacy and presidency.  A lifelong resident of Marion, Ohio (Harding’s hometown), Hamilton spent much of his life furthering Harding’s career and, after Harding’s sudden death, commemorating the late president’s life through the construction of the giant Harding Memorial in Marion.  In recollecting his earlier years, Tristan also tries to come to terms with his relationship with Mitzy von Leuckel, one of the President’s mistresses.

Musings: In modern times, President Harding is not a particularly well-known president, and when he is mentioned, it’s typically to appear on “worst presidents” lists.  This novel, taking place in 1963, is in some ways Tristan’s attempt to “set the record straight” about Harding.

In the Fullness of Time moves back and forth in history, covering the present day, where Tristan in an old man, and his days as a youth and a middle-aged man.  Throughout the book, Tristan expresses contempt for all the people who have “gotten it wrong” through rumors spread by unscrupulous neighbors and dastardly historians.  But despite Tristan’s insistence that anyone thinking poorly of President Harding or “jumping to conclusions” has misunderstood, it’s not clear that Tristan is really in any better position to know or tell the truth.

In fact, I came to enjoy the novel more when I began to understand Tristan as a wholly unreliable narrator, although it’s not clear whether Nicolosi intended for him to be understood as such.  Tristan is a man who is convinced he has never behaved badly in his life; he repeatedly refers to his selflessness, upstanding moral character, and devotion to those around him.  In areas where he clearly has done wrong, he shows no remorse, arguing instead why there should be no blame for his actions.  He tries to hide his pompousness and arrogance toward others through the repeated insistence on his virtue and honor. 

He defends Harding, a man whom Tristan says he personally hates, in the same manner.  Harding is a man whose character has been damaged by the scandals of his presidency, and Tristan defends Harding as if he were defending his own self.  It’s never fully clear why Tristan is so devoted to the late president, going so far as to erect an obscene colossus of a monument in Marion, Ohio—a Greek-inspired rotunda more at home next to the great monuments of the great presidents in Washington, D.C.  But it did seem clear to me that in building the monument, Tristan insists on Harding’s positive legacy, and in doing so, defines his own positive purpose in life.  Tristan has spent so many years in service to President Harding’s memory that to admit wrongdoing, on his or Harding’s part, would mean to admit a worthlessness to his own life.

Nicolosi builds up a number of mysteries throughout the book, some specifically from the Harding presidency (did Harding really die of natural causes?) and some from Tristan’s life.  Because the story is not told linearly, but in pieces, and because Tristan refuses to talk about those aspects of his life that he is uncomfortable with—despite the fact that they are the most interesting—the mystery builds slowly but becomes more intriguing throughout the book.  However, by the end, most of these mysteries are left unexplained.  As a reader I found that a bit unfulfilling, although I suppose the lack of neat endings is in keeping with the historical nature of the novel.  After all, in real life, many things remain unknown.

Tristan’s age shows in his narration, as he frequently breaks in his telling to return to an earlier event (“Once, again, I’m getting ahead of myself…”) which then gets elaborated upon.  It’s like talking to an elderly relative who has difficulty staying on target, frequently straying to other thoughts and then coming back only to defend what he has said with such insistence that you can’t help but think it must not be true.

In the Fullness of Time provides a unique look at a largely overlooked presidency, and while, for me, it didn’t shed much light on Harding, it did offer a glimpse into the people whose lives are shaped by presidencies and damaged by secrets.

Disclosure: Provided to me by the publisher for my honest review.

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