Former journalist Ward Just has explored the complicated lives, motivations, and loyalties of those involved in American politics and those who report on their activities in such novels as In the City of Fear (1982) and Jack Gance (1989). Echo House, his twelfth novel, shows how the fates of the powerful in Washington, D.C., become intertwined through the lives of three generations of a family living in the mansion that gives the novel its title. Just makes the city and the house inhabited by the Behls as vivid as the human characters. His view of the American political scene is perhaps more cynical here than elsewhere in his fiction as he attempts to reflect the shifts in the mood of the nation’s capital from World War I to the present.
Adolph Behl, a United States senator, hopes to win the Democratic presidential nomination in 1916, but failing that, he will accept the vice presidency and has been promised the position by his party’s nominee. Adolph is not truly ambitious, but his wife, Constance, drives him to seek higher office. When the nominee backs out of his promise, the senator is outraged because he is a straightforward man who believes that a person’s word is sacrosanct. Adolph’s cronies, concerned with retaining their power within the party, beg him to congratulate the man who has betrayed him, but the senator’s sense of honor cannot accept the humiliation.
This pivotal event is witnessed by the Behls’ young son, Axel, who learns from it and never places himself in the position of being so betrayed. Instead, he becomes a powerful behind-the- scenes manipulator. Axel marries the beautiful New Yorker Sylvia Walren, raises money for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, works on German affairs for the State Department, and serves in Army Intelligence during World War II, the pivotal event in his life. While on a mission with his friend Fred Greene, Axel becomes infatuated with Nadege, a young woman in the French resistance. Fleeing a shootout with German soldiers during which Nadege is killed, Axel and Fred drive over a partisan land mine. Fred is killed, and Axel’s entire body is scarred. Alec Behl’s life runs parallel to his father’s: an unhappy marriage, an ill-fated affair with a French woman who dies, and fame within the Washington Beltway for his behind-the-scenes machinations. Just makes the influence of father and son ominous by being vague about exactly what they do.
Echo House is less a novel of incident than of character and mood, with Just painting a portrait of twentieth century politics in which the shadows in the corners of the canvas are more compelling than the figures in the foreground. It is significant that the novel begins with Senator Adolph Behl about to take center stage only to be shunted aside and then to choose a life in the background. While Constance does not understand his behavior, none of their wives or lovers truly understands the Behl men. Adolph’s heroes are Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Henry Adams, and he prides himself on attempting to adhere to their ideals. The day after the nominee’s rejection, he gives Axel his most prized possession, a signed first edition of Adams’s Washington novel Democracy (1880), which condemns a senator for compromising his integrity for political advantage.
Axel tells Alec in 1952 that if Adolph had not thrown power away his own life would have been different: He would have attained high office “because I would have believed in promises and mumbo- jumbo. I would have made a different marriage, not a Bohemian with a sharp tongue. Not a woman who thought of government as a spittoon and a stuffed ballot box.” Axel tells Alec that government is the family business, but what government accomplishes is not that important. The process matters more than the outcome. Just suggests that such an attitude is responsible for the relative loss of ideals in American politics in the second half of the twentieth century.
Axel cannot forgive Sylvia for what he overhears her telling a doctor while he lies broken in a hospital bed: that he has planned to become president, but “Thank God there’s no chance of that now.” After the war he feels an obligation, as he explains to Alec: “When you fight a war and win it, you own it. And it owns you. The price is never cheap and you have to protect the victory, as you would any investment.” He must protect the victory by keeping Democrats in power, and he feels the war has entitled him to use whatever means are necessary, including blackmail.
Before meeting Sylvia, Axel has a romance with childhood friend Billie Peralta that begins with a conversation about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925). Axel explains that his favorite character is...
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