A Just Look at the American Dream

For years I heard Ward Just described as a novelist’s novelist, which can mean books written with admirable style that no one reads. He is also often praised for portraying Washington with an insider’s eye for the way personal power operates.

It is true that many of his books are set in the capital where he was a reporter in the faraway and tumultuous years between 1959 and 1969. Politicians and spooks are sometimes present, but more it seems as a way to embody the nation’s psyche rather than as tools in a conventional Washington melodrama.

He has also set books in Vietnam where he served a tour as war correspondent, in the Great Lakes region of his youth, and in Europe. Quite often the books concern visual artists — a sculptor, painter or photographer — and his prose demonstrates an eye for the telling detail, a feel for place.

Now almost 80, Just hasn’t slowed down. He has published over half of his 17 novels in the last 20 years including many of his most highly regarded, encouragement for late bloomers everywhere. I have only read four, each different from the others in subject matter and setting but similar in style and mood.

Just is a poet of American power and its discontents, of family conflicts and the inexorable changes that no man can stay. The great Henry Green once described the novel, or the kind he admired anyway, as “a gathering web of insinuations” and that suits Just’s fiction. The reader is pulled along by the mood he evokes, his lucid subtle prose and the people he sketches, but there is not the whiz bang plotting or neat denouements of genre fiction. Often his conclusions are as inconclusive as life.

Again this is rather more like visual art that literary. Like Willa Cather or Fitzgerald he is a kind of impressionist. No one asks how a portrait or landscape comes out in the end. Yet the reader of a Just book is often vaguely dissatisfied because it hasn’t concluded as anticipated, hasn’t neatly summed up life but simply shown it and left the reader to draw conclusions. Often the reader doesn’t know what to conclude, but does continue to be haunted by the people and places and situations he has spied on.

“Jack Gance” concerns a bright young midwestern hustler who becomes a pollster for politicians, a congressional aide and eventually a successful pol himself, but it is less about rise than about the slippery footing and penalties of a public life, the failure of the reality to match the dream, his messy relations with women, the liability his once jailed father poses.

“A Family Trust” isn’t about a sum of money but about a Midwestern newspaper and its founder and the lack, in times of change, of an heir willing or able to carry on a business that is really more a calling.

“Echo House,” too, concerns several generations, this time of old-style Washington power brokers like Robert Strauss or Clark Clifford who operated behind the scenes to steer policy, make or break people and feather various nests, including their own.

“Forgetfulness” appears at first to be a Le Carre style thriller. A middle-aged French woman goes for a walk near her home in the Pyrenees, falls and breaks her ankle and is found on a mountain trail by four men crossing the border who do not want their presence reported. She dies at the end of the first chapter and the shock of the act sends out ripples that make up the rest of the story.

We learn her American expat husband is a portrait painter and his two best friends are Company men for whom he once ran a few errands, his artistic career useful cover. Was there a connection to his wife’s death or was it merely random bad luck? The unravelling touches on our Middle East adventures, the covert world of American spooks and Muslim terror, but despite these potentially lurid trappings, the book is really a meditation on aging, loss and the meaning of home.

I recommend all four for the elegance of Just’s prose and for anyone who’d like to read a grown-up book for a change. They provide a kind of gauge of the health of the American experiment, rather like lab tests that point to the patient’s underlying condition. I have thirteen more to look forward to. Those who know his work well seem to agree that, in addition to the above, “An Unfinished Season,” “Exiles in the Garden,” and “American Romantic” are among his finest efforts.

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