Going Down with Dewey Fiction Writer Thomas Mallon Takes a Look at Thomas E. Dewey's Hometown in the Year of the Nation's Greatest Political Upset

Article excerpt

ON THE DAY after Harry S Truman upset Gov. Thomas E. Dewey in the 1948 presidential election, Mayor Roger T. Sermon of Independence, Mo., declared a holiday in the incumbent president's hometown. Schools were dismissed at noon. Residents quit working and stood around just to talk. The bell on the courthouse, which Truman had helped to build as a county judge, was rung in victory.

As you might expect, the scene was very different in Owosso, Mich., Dewey's hometown. "Gloom ruled more than two-thirds of Owosso and amazement was universal as the hours and the national voting reports ground on Tuesday night . . ." the Owosso Argus-Press reported on the day after the election.

Dewey's election, and Owosso's moment in the sun, had been a foregone conclusion for months before the election. Residents had expected everything that Independence, Mo., eventually got - a place on the map, a presidential library, a mecca for political historians and tourists. But on Nov. 3, 1948, the electorate snatched those away. Dewey, who had long since taken up residence in New York, where he prosecuted organized crime before being elected governor, carried his native county but lost Michigan, as well as the nation. Since then, Owosso, population 16,000, hasn't exactly turned its back on Dewey, but neither did it see much profit potential in the agony of defeat. The Dewey birthplace above an old appliance store got a plaque, but the tourists are pointed toward Curwood Castle, studio of adventure writer James Oliver Curwood, and other sites. It took Thomas Mallon to see the literary potential. He had been in Michigan working on another book when someone pointed him toward Owosso, at the junction of state routes 52 and 71, about 20 miles or so west of Flint. Finding it unsullied by the passage of time, he was totally charmed. "Republican and amiable," was the way he described it. "If you were to make my book into a movie," he said, "all you would have to do is take the cars off the street." Mallon's novel, "Dewey Defeats Truman" (Pantheon, $24), is warmly evocative of an era when politics and cynicism were, if not poles apart, at some distance from each other. The Dewey book just touches on the presidential candidate. It's mostly about Anne Macmurray, a pretty woman in her 20s who can't make up her mind about a couple of suitors - Peter Cox, an ambitious, egocentric attorney seeking his first political office as a state representative, and Jack Riley, a UAW organizer, rugged and unpolished. Layered atop that story are numerous subplots - all upsets in the making, Mallon says - that give you the feel of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town," or Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Carousel." Mallon doesn't care for the comparisons, instead noting that his book goes against type - casting Owosso in a benign light where other novels about small towns make residents seem ignorant and small minded. See Sinclair Lewis' "Babbitt" and "Main Street" or Sherwood Anderson's "Winesburg, Ohio." That literary approach made things go swimmingly when Mallon revisited Owosso, where he signed books and gave a reading at the local library. His visit to St. Louis earlier this month for a book signing at Left Bank Books came immediately after. …


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