||The Eisenhower Years in Novel Form
by Antony Di Nardo
Chicago, early 1950s: Eisenhower and the Republicans are trying to end the war in Korea while fighting off communism at home; news is sensationalized, designed to sell papers, and it appears in morning and evening editions. Enter Wilson Ravan, nineteen-year-old son of a wealthy self-made businessman. His father is in the twilight of his career. A union strike at his printing plant has taken the wind out of his business sails (pun intended), and he defers to his well-heeled New England wife who wants nothing else out of their strained relationship but for them to travel and "modernize" their estate in Quarterday, a quiet, rural suburb of Chicago.
Wils, about to enter college, is having the summer of his life. His father gets him a job as a copy boy at one of the city tabloids. He's a regular at downtown jazz clubs, is fitted for his first tux, and gets invited to all the debutante parties on the North Shore. During the day he soaks up newsy gossip from the reporters at the paper; at night he moves among Chicago's elite with cocktail glass in hand. The same people usually turn out to these parties, and Wils eventually hooks up with Aurora Brule, only daughter of the enigmatic Dr. Jack Brule, psychiatrist and war hero. At first, Wils seems more interested in Aurora's father, whose detached silence and reputation for harbouring secrets intrigue him, but in the course of a few days he recognises that Aurora is an intelligent, headstrong young woman with whom he can share this world and his ideas about it. But tragedy strikes Aurora's family and it changes their relationship forever, catapulting Wils into an awakening.
That's a simple enough plot line, but An Unfinished Season is so much more than mere plot, and, at the hands of a master like Ward Just, it is anything but simple. This is superbly crafted writing. There are passages where every sentence, every thought is arresting and begs a rereading and reflection. Just can conjure an entire personal history in a paragraph, and capture the mood of an epoch in a few lines. Artful, beautifully honed to comment on the human condition, the political world, and the manners of the wealthy class, his writing is expansive, but cuts close to the bone, with an understanding of human truths that illuminates both recent history and his own narrative.
His scenes move quickly, one into another, with little interruption and barely a digression. They are lit by the ever-present narrator, Wils himself-an expert storyteller who is equipped with a "great gift of narrative." At the novel's start, Wils relates how his family grew apart that year like the "secessionist provinces of an unstable nation", and had to re-invent itself. "The house was reorganized, the den and the terrace brought up to date, the pond and the sycamores soon to go; it was as if my mother was determined to erase history itself, airbrush the photographs as the commissars regularly did." Meanwhile, Wils comes face to face with his American contemporaries-eager politicians, ruthless reporters, union men, men bearing dark secrets from the war. And he confronts his own beliefs, realizing that "there will be some things in your life that you'll never speak about."
When Wils is brought to Aurora's home to meet Dr. Brule, the older man comments on the state of the individual in the urban world: "The world is anonymous to us. We walk our own paths for the most part. Family, friends, colleagues, the woman at the post office window, the cop on the beat. That's our orbit. God help us if we slip from it and enter someone else's . . ." Wils tells Aurora that his own stories, for which he has developed a reputation among the debutantes, come from the newspaper office where he works, adding that "a newspaper office is a story factory. You make stories the way a furniture factory makes chairs. The stories are supposed to be well made and comfortable, so you can sit in them without fear that they'll break down or disappoint you in any way." Later in that same scene, the reader is witness to a conversation between Wils and Aurora, a dialogue that is beautifully made, solid, theatrical and ironic-a frame out of a 1950s movie gilded with the likes of Bogart and Baccall, a perfect complement to the weighty atmosphere Ward Just creates.
Wils is a complex, mature and, dare I say, wise nineteen-year-old. There are moments when he comes across as a sage ninety-year-old rather than a boy just past adolescence. His boss at the newspaper accuses him of being "the oldest god damned nineteen-year-old I've ever met. I think you were born middle-aged, and that's your trouble." Wils is philosophical; his curiosity bends toward the workings of the individual conscience, toward trying to imagine what makes a man who he is, the circumstances that flesh him out. He wonders if we go through life "as a reflection in the mirrors of other people." He sees Adlai Stevenson, a friend of Dr. Brule, from a distance and thinks of him as "a tomb of secrets". Later, in a discussion about the "Unmentionables" that exist in all families, he reminds Aurora that "Odysseus wept when he heard the poet sing of his great deeds abroad because, once sung, they were no longer his alone. They belonged to anyone who heard the song." Secrets, once told, violate the personality. Wils understands that the "exact truth [about the war] was profoundly private," but also grasps why "the agreed-upon silence not to contradict the Hollywood version of events was giving way at last."
With this realization he enters "twentieth-century life, the modern world, where spillage [is] inevitable, even necessary" and chaos is welcomed. But there are no loose ends in this narrative, because in the end it is memory, not secrets, that prevails. It is especially the storyteller's memory that brings order to the chaos, a sense of narrative to the human secrets that percolate to the surface. However, we should keep in mind, as the author cautions us with a touch of self-deprecating irony, that "poets always make too much of things"; they "live by myth, if only to account for themselves."
Ward Just's fourteenth novel is a bravura performance and once again confirms his position, as one critic puts it, on the A-list of living writers. You won't find writing more ambitious, more evocative, or more sensitive to the beauty of a finely tuned paragraph than what you'll read in An Unfinished Season.