The American Ambassador
Ward Just is one of the few serious American novelists who write well about contemporary public figures, and The American Ambassador further establishes his reputation in this field. As a former reporter for The Washington Post and Newsweek, Just has a familiarity with such public figures—senators, ambassadors, top presidential advisers—which brings authority to his work. With The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert and Other Washington Stories (1973), his first collection of short fiction and his most widely known work, Just captured the atmosphere of the city of Washington, D.C., with an artist’s touch, presenting his fictional figures with a detached, precise prose that recalled the language of Ernest Hemingway. All these stories appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, where Just became a contributing editor. He has been less successful in such recent novels as In the City of Fear (1982) and American Blues (1984), which contain compelling characters and have some moments of real power, but which finally do not exhibit the sense of form necessary for a first-rate work of fiction. The American Ambassador, constructed along sounder lines, is a traditional novel which explores the psychological dimensions of character within the confines of a focused plot. Because of the clandestine terrorist activities, some critics have termed the novel a thriller, but overall it is characterized by slow-moving explorations of morally ambiguous situations and events—a traditional field of the serious novelist.
Although the story is narrated omnisciently, with the events viewed from the perspectives of four different characters—Bill North, his wife Elinor, their son Bill North, Jr., and Bill Jr.’s German lover and fellow revolutionary Gert Mueller—the central focus is on the character of Bill North, the protagonist, on his personality and on his traditional American values. The specific values embodied in his character are his sense of family, an idealism which finds expression in his patriotism, forthright honesty, ingenuity, and loyalty. In his sense of family, the relationship he has with his wife Elinor is one of the central aspects of his life; it is also one of the triumphs of the book. Seldom in contemporary fiction has the bond between a middle-aged man and woman been portrayed with such sensitivity. Their relationship, which holds much compassion as well as passion, is one of mutual support and understanding. It is a traditional American marriage in that Elinor, although an artist in her own right, spends much of her energy and time in support of her husband; she moves largely in an orbit around his sphere of personality and concerns.
That sphere of concerns is a considerable one, for Bill North is a man of exceptional abilities. The youngest man in his foreign service class to reach the rank of ambassador, he has participated numerous times in ceremonial activities at the president’s Oval Office. The most noteworthy public event in his life, which is related in a series of flashbacks, occurred in South Central Africa in 1963, when he was a twenty-seven-year-old foreign service officer. The country in which he was stationed was involved in the beginnings of a leftist revolution; in a search for the names of the revolutionaries, Bill North and a young German diplomat friend, Kurt Kleust, travel away from the capital out into the bush country to visit a German missionary. They are successful in learning the names, but on the return trip, they are ambushed by a band of those revolutionaries. Their driver is killed, and although Bill is wounded by grenade fragments, he helps Kleust fight off the attackers, shooting several of them and killing at least one. This physical action is rendered with vivid detail, with the kind of authority which someone who has witnessed combat can provide. (As a war correspondent for The Washington Post, Just was wounded by grenade fragments—as Bill North is—during a fierce firefight with North Vietnamese regulars, in which more than half of the American company were either killed or severely wounded. These events in Just’s life are related in “Reconnaissance,” which is a chapter from his first book, the nonfictional work To What End: Report from Vietnam, 1968. Published at the height of the war, Just’s “report” was remarkably farsighted.)
Ironically, the State Department officially does not approve of Bill North’s actions in going into the bush, but the attorney general and the president—although not mentioned specifically by name, they obviously are Robert Kennedy and John F. Kennedy—view his daring with approval. The revolution is aborted, and American interests are preserved.
The present action of the novel opens twenty-three years later, in 1986. An old grenade fragment has worked against Bill North’s spine, causing a loss of feeling in his left hand. He must extend his current vacation leave to have the fragment removed in a Washington, D. C., hospital. While undergoing preoperative tests, he is visited by a government official who questions him about the activities of his son; the government has learned that a senator is planning a public hearing into the relationship between Bill North and Bill Jr., in an attempt to link both of them to terrorism in Western Europe, and this official must...
(The entire section is 2196 words.)