In the thirty-six years since he left a distinguished career as a journalist to become a full-time writer of fiction, Ward Just has published fifteen novels, three collections of stories and novellas, and a small volume containing a play and two more stories. The best of these booksincluding Forgetfulnessdeserve to be read by anyone who cares about fine writing or the power of the novel to help readers understand themselves and their time.
Readers who recognize Just’s name probably think of him as our premier fictional chronicler of Washington, D.C. While he is most certainly that, he is much more. Taken as a whole, his fiction presents a multigenerational portrait of well-to-do and well-connected Americans during the period between the New Deal and the present (although his portrait actually spans “the American Century” back as far as the 1890’s and always finds its touchstone in the 1960’s). In his pages readers see how individuals, the country, and its government have been shaped by our engagement in World War II, Korea, Cuba, Berlin, Africa, Latin America, Vietnam, and the Middle East. They find an America sharply defined by historical events such as the Cold War, Camelot and the Kennedy assassination, the Vietnam debacle, Watergate, the fall of the Soviet Empire, and, in Forgetfulness, 9/11 and the War on Terror. This is an America undergoing profound changes in its social and political fabric, from the rise of the suburbs and the consequent crisis of small-town main streets and urban centers to the heyday and decline of city and county political machines, from the emergence of lawyers as power brokers and fixers to the evolution of Washington, from a small company town to an international magnet for money, power, and international intrigue. It is an America in which both private and public life are marked by struggles between order and chaos, stability and change, memory and amnesia.
Vietnam inspired Just’s first two novels, A Soldier of the Revolution (1970) and Stringer (1974). Written in a prose that evoked comparisons to writer Ernest Hemingway, both of these novels also recall novelists Joseph Conrad’s and Graham Greene’s portraits of burnt-out cases forced to make moral choices in foreign lands. Like novelists Henry Adams, Gore Vidal, and Allen Drury before him, Just recognized that Washington could be more than the scene for potboilers and espionage capers. In early stories such as “The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert” (1972) and his third novel, Nicholson at Large (1975), he began to stake his claim as poet laureate of the insider’s Washington. In Nicholson at Large he also presents his first portrait of an artist. Then, in A Family Trust (1978) and stories such as “Honor, Power, Riches, Fame, and the Love of Women” (1979), he took the Midwest satirized by Sinclair Lewis in Main Street (1920) and Babbitt (1922) and turned its offices, living rooms, and clubs into scenes as ripe for subtle and sophisticated social analysis as American writers Edith Wharton’s New York drawing rooms, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s East and West Egg, John O’Hara’s Pottsville, John Cheever’s Shady Hill, or John Updike’s Tarbox.
By the end of his first decade as a novelist, then, Just had found all but one of the major subjects and main locations that he would return to throughout his career. Memories of Vietnam and its implications for American foreign policy would be central to In the City of Fear (1982), The American Blues (1984), and A Dangerous Friend (1999). His Washingtonlocated in Georgetown, Northern Virginia, and Maryland’s Eastern Shore, as well as the Capitol, the White House, the agencies, and the law firms that advise rather than litigatewould reappear and be refined in In the City of Fear, The American Ambassador (1987), Jack Gance (1989), the National Book Award finalist Echo House (1997), and a late story such as “Born in His Time” (2001). He would develop portraits of other writers and artists in the story “Honor, Power, Riches, Fame, and the Love of Women” and in The American Blues, The American Ambassador, The Translator (1991), Ambition and Love (1994), and The Weather in Berlin (2002). He would again capture moments in the social history of his Midwestwhich includes Chicago, its North Shore suburbs, the downstate Illinois town he calls Dementin another of his most memorable stories, “The North Shore,...
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