Wils Ravan, age nineteen, lives with his parents in a suburb of Chicago, in a house on the edge of a golf course. His father owns a successful printing business. Wils has been admitted to the University of Chicago as a freshman; he will begin in the fall. For the summer he has a temporary job, obtained through the influence of his father, as a copy boy in the newsroom of a downtown paper. Coming out of his sheltered background, Wils begins to discover a wider world, where it is not at all easy to find one's niche. Ward Just's An Unfinished Season contains a series of formative experiences for Wils that will likely remind adult readers of difficulties they had to face in the process of growing up.
The time is the 1950's. Dwight Eisenhower is president, and the Korean conflict has become a stalemate. Wils's father, Teddy Ravan, lectures him about the international Communist menace and un-American influences in the media. Employees at Teddy's print shop have recently formed a labor union, which is threatening to go on strike for higher wages—a development that Teddy attributes to Communist agitators. Wils's mother, Jo, is frightened and wants Teddy to settle with the union.
When no compromise is reached, the workers go on strike, and Teddy hires a crew of rough characters as strikebreakers. A crisis occurs when a brick is thrown through the window of the Ravans’ home. The shattered window shows Wils, for the first time, that his father is not always in control. The emotional impact of this event on the young man is condensed into one powerful sentence:
I realized how far from normal our family had become, my mother frightened by cars in the road and threatening telephone calls, my father carrying a gun and worried about the Communists and the future of his business, and I—I, so far on the margins of the family, a spectator only, trying to read between the lines and discovering that the spaces were infinite but that one thing was certainly true, my father and mother loved each other and cared about each other, and then from the moment the brick crashed through the window I knew that was an illusion and the space between them was infinite, too.
Soon after the brick incident, Wils's elderly grandfather in Connecticut has a stroke, so his mother goes East to be with her parents. Teddy and Wils are left on their own, playing golf and pinochle and having extended conversations. Wils's grandfather was part of the moneyed Eastern establishment and held a poor opinion of Chicago. He had expected his daughter to marry and stay in the East and had offered a job to his prospective son-in-law—but Teddy had curtly turned him down. Teddy had never gotten along with Jo's father. When the old man dies, Jo is distraught and goes so far as to blame Teddy for causing her father's death by his antagonistic attitude. Harsh words are spoken, and Wils discovers another gap in his naïve understanding of his parents.
At work at the newspaper, Wils sees that daily stories of shootings, suicides, rapes, and other tragedies are headlined to sell papers. The stories are written to be as sensational as possible. Stories featuring prominent people in the midst of scandal are particularly good sellers. A reporter may pass himself off as a police investigator in order to gain admittance to a crime scene, to take photos or interview a distraught victim. There appear to be no ethical standards that stand in the way of getting information. For Wils, being in such an environment of cutthroat competition is a brand-new experience.
In the evenings, Wils is part of a completely different world. With his upper-middle-class family background, he is invited to numerous debutante parties given by the parents of young women in his peer group. These parties are generally formal; the women wear gowns, and the men wear dinner jackets and dancing shoes. The main activities are dancing, drinking, and polite conversation. Wils tells sensational stories from his newspaper job to provide entertainment for party guests. The young people form an eager audience, as the anecdotes are somewhat risqué. Some of the parents object to his telling such stories because they want to shield their sons and daughters from the roughness of the lower-class world. At one party, Wils becomes acquainted with a girl named Aurora, who is planning to attend an eastern college in the fall. He takes her home after the dance and then begins dating her. She lives in an apartment with her divorced father, who is a psychiatrist.
(The entire section is 1849 words.)