Most journalists who switch from reportage to fiction write romans a clef emphasizing plot and details, based upon their inside knowledge of whatever subjects they have covered. Ward Just, despite occasional weak characterization and excessive reliance on detail early in his career, has been a notable exception. The former reporter for Newsweek magazine and The Washington Post has concentrated on ideas and psychological insight into his characters in the eight novels and two collections of short stories he has published since 1970. Just’s major subjects are the press, politics, and war, particularly all three during the Vietnam era. Just has written often about politicians and bureaucrats in Washington in such works as The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert and Other Washington Stories (1973) and In the City of Fear (1982). Half of Jack Gance deals with how the nation’s capital has changed from the early days of the Kennedy Administration to the present, and the other half shows changes in Chicago politics since the 1950’s. The ambiguities of modern American politics are captured in the title character, who manages to be idealistic, pragmatic, and cynical all at once.
Just portrays the public and inner lives of Jack Gance from his boyhood during World War II to his election as a United States senator in the 1980’s. Jack’s relations with his family, lovers, and political associates are depicted as he progresses from being a University of Chicago student in the 1950’s to working as a pollster for Chicago’s city hall machine during the 1960 Presidential campaign to serving on the staff of a congressman to holding a post during a presidential administration in the 1970’s to being a political consultant to running for and winning a senate seat. Jack emerges as a complex personality who understands the political process much better than he does people. Just presents Jack’s life and career in terms of his relations with a handful of people, the two places, Chicago and Washington, that help shape his character, and a few pivotal incidents.
Jack is descended from two well-to-do Chicago families, one of which can trace its roots back to the days when the future city was Fort Dearborn, a trading post, but neither the Jackeson nor the Gance family is what it once was. Jack’s great- grandfather sold worthless stock in the 1890’s, and his proud, stubborn father goes to prison in the 1950’s. Victor Gance, a real-estate developer; tries to save his business any way he can and is charged with income-tax evasion. Victor, who hates all authority, refuses to defend himself and is considered a traitor to his class for seeming to confirm what leftists say about businessmen. Even Sam, Victor’s older son, turns against him and abandons his family: “Re was appalled by the consequences of my father’s crime, the carelessness of it, the disgrace, the publicity; it was the publicity that guaranteed the disgrace. Private disgrace was an inconvenience, but public disgrace a calamity.”
Jack, who displays some of the same stubbornness as Victor, the same indifference to what others think, becomes obsessed with understanding his father’s actions and character. From both sides of his family, he inherits a reticence, almost a passionless outlook on life:Ours was a conservative family of pauses and silences, privacy protected as other families protected an inheritance or a scandal. Rage was husbanded, it being too essential to broadcast indiscriminately; and it seemed all the more titanic for being buried so deep, though never so deep as to be inaccessible.
After years of holding in her feelings about her husband’s disgrace, Iva Gance finally expresses her resentment for the way Victor has been treated only when he nears death. Her sticking by Victor, never questioning his motives, is in keeping with her Midwestern values, making her outrage at Sam’s disloyalty predictable.
A bachelor, Jack has more than superficial relations with only two women. Katrina Lauren, his fellow student at the University of Chicago, is a German refugee orphaned by the war. Katrina performs on campus as a satirical, existential comedian, and everyone expects her to have a great career. The friends of neither can understand what she sees in Jack: “so studious and buttoned-up, so often melancholy, obsessed with the political life of the precinct.” Innocent and naive, despite his father’s troubles, Jack learns how inexperienced at life he is as he listens to Katrina’s account of wandering in Berlin’s rubble as a child: “I began to understand how little I knew of the world and its terrible odds, how people behaved, what they wanted and what they would do to get it, and what they had to do to survive, and how to imagine the unimaginable.” He discovers how to confront the unimaginable when Katrina is killed absurdly in a traffic accident. He eventually rejects the romantic notion that Katrina has spoiled him for other women, but she has understood him better than anyone else.
Katrina appeals to his intellectual, moral, and political sensibilities, Carole Nierendorf to his more reckless and sensual nature. Carole is married to Charles, a dull, ambitious attorney and protege’ of Elly Mozart, the most influential lawyer in Chicago politics. In addition to being drawn to her sexually, Jack is impressed by Carole’s independence and passion for life, her “whole-souled emotional appetite that could be abated but never satisfied.” She is more mature than Jack, realizes that their relationship can never be...