Ward Just Essay - Critical Essays

Just, Ward

Just, Ward 1935–

Just, an American, writes novels of politics. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28.)

[The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert and Other Washington Stories], modest though it is, constitutes perhaps the one intrinsically successful work of fiction about our capital city. It might, drably but accurately, have been called Government, a thought I offer only because I am anxious to see this book replace that old dog Democracy as the standard fictional text about Washington. If Democracy ever had anything going for it, besides the Adams name, it was only a certain sense of subject. Henry Adams was too perceptive a man not to know where the game was to be found, but he was not a novelist, and all he could really do with the game was locate it.

Ward Just has done more. There are only nine stories in the collection, but they are expertly spread and highly focused….

It is not easy to integrate a body of stories, which will have been written at various times, in varying moods, about a diversity of subjects. Just transcends this problem, and does it essentially through tone: the collection as a whole has an impact far greater than even the best of the stories would have, taken alone.

Indeed, it is the controlled, informed, but always impersonal tone of the prose which makes this book the triumph that it is. Many books have been written about Washington, some of them by fine writers. Many of them have been excellent in detail, but all of them have failed, it seems to me, to convey the ambiance of the city. I suspect these failures have something to do with the nature of political narrative itself, with its constant tendency to shade into melodrama. Yet the ambiance of Washington is not passion and melodrama; it is, first and last, control and impersonality. In these tones, or tones very like them, life is lived here, and decisions made, and a nation governed, more or less. Of course, high dramas occur and the passions that go with ambition come into play constantly, but the tones of these passions and dramas seem to vanish almost as they are uttered; they do not, I think, permeate the lives of the secretariat. The antecedent to the tone which Just has employed is the tone of the Michigan stories of Ernest Hemingway; applying it to Washington was a highly effective choice because it is the perfect tone with which to dramatize the kind of inhibitions of spirit which the bureaucratic life requires.

Larry McMurtry, "Just So Stories," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), July 22, 1973, p. 3.

Just is an admirer of Ernest Hemingway, and there is something of the tone of the early Hemingway stories in "The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert." The nine stories are polished, sophisticated, understated and possessed of near-perfect dialogue and absolute authenticity. Each fact stated suggests 10 facts known but unstated—Hemingway's tip-of-the-iceberg theory of writing. But the analogy should not be pushed too far, for Hemingway was drawn to external dramas—hunting, boxing, skiing, war—and Just writes of the more muted, internal dramas of political life. Hearts break in Just's stories, but no blood is shed….

Violence and sex are always offstage. A bloody coup in Africa is seen through the indifferent eyes of a desk-bound C.I.A. bureaucrat in Washington. The Vietnam war touches an ambitious Congressman only when a visiting schoolgirl whispers that her brother died there. A Vietnam war hero tries to explain to an interviewer what it was like to kill but can't find the words. Public men prove to be private men, their dramas as secret as cancer.

Patrick Anderson, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 26, 1973, p. 22.

To say that Stringer is one of the best novels to come out of Vietnam may seem a limited compliment, but at its best the book is very good indeed….

The novel deals with a number of themes, but chief among them seems to me the debilitating effect of a cold, faceless, mechanical institution—in this case the Army—on those who must carry out its programmed, computerized policies….

Stringer is most effective in the Vietnam scenes, less so in the flashbacks to Stringer's college years and his brief, unsuccessful marriage. Too, the novel's construction is rather shaky—the transition from the jungle to the hospital is somewhat confusing. But overall, this is a work of intelligence, skill and tightly-controlled passion.

Jonathan Yardley, "Prisoner of War," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), March 10, 1974, p. 3.

Just … author of a superb collection of short stories, "The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert," obviously admires Hemingway. His clean, sparse, muscular prose evokes the tensions and suspense of men at war. [Stringer] is easily the best of the handful of novels to have emerged from the Vietnam war.

Arthur Cooper, "The Insane War," in Newsweek (copyright Newsweek, Inc., 1974; reprinted by permission), March 11, 1974, pp. 83-4.

In To What End: Report from Vietnam (1968), as in [Stringer], Just sees our Indochina entaglement in terms of a script that might have been written by Pinter or Beckett. The earlier book pictured the war as an East Indian theater of the absurd in which violence rolled on "without plot, rhyme or reason." Particularly frustrating, marine Gen. Lewis Walt told Just, was the inability of the US soldier to know who were his friends, who his enemies. The upshot: a paranoia that hit all the ranks. "Madness in Vietnam," declared Just, "became infectious and somehow normal." Paranoia and even suicidal madness play a role in Stringer and what emerges is the existentialist theme of human beings pinned down in an absurd and meaningless world….

For readers tired of war and Watergate and other longstanding irritants, Stringer may pass as a novel designed to keep us from forgetting, but belaboring a point we all know. Just is a low-profile author, however, and his novel is less an antiwar story than an examination of the ironies growing out of the Vietnam imbroglio. In his nonfictional Military Men Just tried to give the army its due, pictured its officer corps as an aristocracy that nevertheless encourages merit, praised West Pointers and other professionals who battled the system, and puzzled over the motives that seduced them into a career where being bookish and introverted made you an oddball and insider-outsider….

Stringer, who fills nearly the whole frame of the novel, is the true existentialist hero in his skepticism and in the sad wisdom that gives him at 35 an air of venerable age slightly modified by his profanity….

Stringer is believable—even his crankiest nihilistic remarks sound like a voice of our times—though future readers may dismiss him as a literary fancy along with the gentleman-heroes of Booth Tarkington and Richard Harding Davis. On the other hand, the minor figures of the novel are blurred, Just having neglected his short story writer's ability to nail down a character with a single descriptive or analytical sentence. Stringer is nevertheless an advance beyond Just's earlier books in its suspenseful storytelling, its evocative style, and its refusal to follow up the smartness and flippancy that brought minor fame last year to his The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert and Other Stories.

James Walt, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc., April 6, 1974, pp. 27-8.

[Stringer is a] beautifully written but maddeningly obscure novel—allegorical, sentences loaded with symbols planted as carefully as antipersonnel mines, a deceptively simple plot that moves from apparent reality through insanity into what seems to be an updated version of Sartre's existentialist hell…. The last third of the novel is set in a nameless capital where Stringer, captured, tries to make sense of his senseless past. The capital may be a real place. Or it may be hell. Or, God forbid, it may be heaven. But that's the problem with Stringer. You can interpret it any way you want. It will be read as a novel about Vietnam, especially since Just was Washington Post correspondent there for 18 months. But Just, born like Stringer in 1935, seems most interested in explaining not the war itself, but rather how his generation viewed itself in relation to that war, a job he could do more effectively by writing about his own journalistic experiences.

John R. Coyne, Jr., in National Review (150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), April 26, 1974, p. 494.

It is apparent that Mr. Just intends Stringer as a statement about both life and war …, but he can't seem to make himself clear. His failure, however, is no more than that; he is an excellent writer, and he has given us a novel that, though ultimately enigmatic, is otherwise a splendidly observed adventure.

The New Yorker, May 27, 1974, pp. 105-06.

A certain vagueness about the title character [Stringer] raises the suspicion that this tough novel about an American guerrilla-warfare expert who cracks up in an Asian jungle may be a parable of the American Viet Nam disaster. Indeed, it might be entitled The Gray Badge of Pragmatism….

Novelist Just finesses most of the moral and artistic questions that could be asked about his book and his character's situation. The reader will find himself wavering between conflicting assessments: the story is really a disturbing piece of surrealism or it is a neat con job. The compromise view—that the book is a bit of both—leaves Ward Just (author of The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert, an excellent collection of several stories published last year) as one of several promising American writers now creeping up on the big novel.

Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), July 8, 1974, pp. E3, 82.