Ward S(wift) Just Essay - Critical Essays

Just, Ward S(wift)


Ward S(wift) Just 1935–

American novelist, short story writer, nonfiction writer, and journalist.

Just's writings reflect his experiences as a journalist in Washington, D.C. and as a war correspondent in Vietnam. His nonfiction includes To What End: Report from Vietnam (1968), an impressionistic record of that conflict; and Military Men (1970), a study—based largely on interviews with professional soldiers—of the American army of the 1970s.

As a fiction writer of terse prose, Just has established a favorable reputation for capturing the ambience of a place. Particularly notable in this regard are his novel Stringer (1974), which evoked the nightmare of Vietnam, and his short story collection The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert and Other Washington Stories (1973), which depicted the political cross-currents within the capital of an America at war. A later novel, A Family Trust (1978), reveals Just's midwestern roots in its portrayal of a small town dominated by a patriarchal editor-publisher of a local newspaper. Returning to the Washington milieu, his recent novel, In the City of Fear (1982), is set in the present-day capital. The story shifts back and forth in time to evoke the long shadow of Vietnam.

Although critical reception to his work is uneven, Just is commended for being a serious writer who accepts the difficult challenge of writing about contemporary politics.

(See also CLC, Vol. 4 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)

John Sack

Firepower, air power, American tolerance of the slaughter of innocents—war in Vietnam has escalated even more things than these. In the spirit of the times the Saigon press corps has added to the press' own artillery, now often sending us the screeching statistic, the lachrymal adjective, the sentence that practically tears at readers' eyes and ears until we are cowed into one close corner of certitude. There are even reporters (and mind you, I don't imply they are wrong) who apparently deplane at Saigon with a soapbox as well as an Olivetti packed in their 44-pound allowance.

Not so Ward Just of the Washington Post. Finishing up a brilliant year as its correspondent in Saigon and in some of its scary environs and sitting down to write his Vietnam report [To What End: Report From Vietnam], he went to extreme lengths—he went, in fact, to Ireland—lest he let analysis escalate to advocacy and advocacy undermine his good faith. Mr. Just anticipated that on the shores of the Shannon, Vietnam's daily calamities and Washington's almost imbecile unawareness of them would be miles enough away to inform his prose without purpling it. Just was right. His book is beautifully restrained, innocent of all polemics and still irresistibly persuasive, a panorama of Vietnam's people, politics and meaningless disasters in a picture built of the most delicate of pointillist dots. Even as one began to think that the only alternative to passionate intensity was Washington's...

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Saul Maloff

[Ward S. Just's "To What End"] pleads no cause, and argues no case. It does not even take a position. It records and describes, evokes and portrays, with the fine eye of a good, skeptical but feeling journalist trying to make sense out of his experience. Just found that quest elusive and mystifying; and that is the book's theme. (p. 126)

Just is at his best and most effective in writing about the utter futility and despair of the quagmire that is Vietnam. He is also fine, in the Hemingway tradition, in his descriptions of actual combat, including, and especially, the patrol in which he was himself wounded. There are vivid tales of dogged determination; the unerringly recorded bawdy humor of men in combat, revelations of impressive courage. Yet somehow they fail to inspirit, hearten, reassure. Though sometimes unintentionally, it is testimony to Just's fidelity as a journalist and to his sensitivity as a man that his report from Vietnam should be overwhelmingly depressing. (p. 126A)

Saul Maloff, "The Absurd War," in Newsweek (copyright 1968, by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. LXXI, No. 15, April 8, 1968, pp. 126, 126A.

Robert E. Nordberg

Ward Just, after eighteen months as a correspondent in Vietnam, wrote a critique of the war, "To What End?" Some of the same concern for social justice appears in his first novel ["A Soldier of the Revolution."]. Its rather wooden hero is Michael Reardon, a former monk who works for a foundation in an unnamed Latin American country….

Reardon is kidnapped by a group of guerrilleros plotting to overthrow the government. They are all the more determined for knowing their chances are about nil. Reardon is necessary to them because they wish to seize the radio station he supervises long enough to broadcast the news of revolution to the Indians. Reardon is captivated by the dedication and resolve of the guerrillas and their leader, El Jefe. He finds himself, not simply going along with a situation he cannot help, but doing everything he can to help them in their madcap scheme. The author seems uninterested in the success of the venture. The twelve (significant?) revolutionaries are shot up and running off in all directions as the story ends. One is not told whether Reardon and El Jefe will survive and, if so, whether they will fight another day.

The story is worthwhile as an illustration of the way a man's behavior can be transformed when he finds something he believes in. The motivation of the hero is incomprehensible, though. Why would a man who has seen through the pretensions of foundations and do-gooders suddenly become a zealot for the proposition that all will be well if all foreigners leave the country? One suspects that Reardon was just bored. He is also boring. The man is supposed to live an intense inner life of conflict and search, but none of it comes through to the reader. The other characters are equally flat, except for one Brother Bicker, who believes to the end that the country can be saved if enough holy cards are distributed. This reviewer believes that a novel ought to point a theme or, failing that, at least present some interesting people. This one does neither. One feels that Mr. Just feels something very intensely and wants to say it, but either there isn't much to it or he can't get it said.

Robert B. Nordberg, in a review of "A Soldier of the Revolution," in Best Sellers (copyright 1970, by the University of Scranton), Vol. 30, No. 8, July 15, 1970, p. 153.

L. J. Davis

When a journalist writes a novel, he has at least two clear options. The one most commonly taken is to fictionalize events and institutions—a runaway bombing plane, the United States Senate—of which he presumes to have some special knowledge. With significant but exceedingly rare exceptions, the results generally range from ridiculous to just plain dumb. The second option is to abandon "fictionalization" either wholly or in part and attempt the novel as an art form. [With A Soldier of the Revolution] Ward Just … has taken the latter course, and in the measure that his novel succeeds, it does so because he is rather a better novelist than most of the members of his profession. Unfortunately, that is not saying much. He is an intelligent and sensitive craftsman reaching—somewhat self-consciously—for the level of Graham Greene. It is as though a highly competent draftsman were suddenly to aspire to Cézanne: a noble aspiration that usually results in a doomed attempt. Just makes a commendable but far too strenuous effort that leads him to commit the cardinal error of the ambitious amateur novelist: He seems to feel that if his characters are saying something profound, they don't have to be doing anything believable.

Just's writing possesses certain of the solid virtues of his trade: clarity of style if not always of content, brevity, and a good eye for detail. His descriptions of the high plain of South America, the Indians, the government, the American Catholic mission, and the mechanics of American aid are infallibly interesting and doubtless accurate. And yet, despite moments of real descriptive power, it is impossible to escape the impression that one has heard it all...

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Paul Denison

[In "Military Men"] Ward Just takes the empathic approach to the men of the army. Thus he makes possible a fuller understanding of the "military mind" than one can gain from either the army's passionate critics or its champions, or even from dispassionate observers.

Mr. Just's style is both impressionistic and precise—James Joyce read by Walter Winchell. Hypersensitive military men may detect undertones of chic cynicism; to other readers the line between sarcasm and sympathy may seem blurred.

But on the whole the book rings true.

Mr. Just has touched all the obvious bases: cadets and professors in the "beautiful ghetto" of West Point; draftees leading lives of "unspeakable, stupefying boredom"; sergeants who make up the army's "single relentlessly subtle element";… utility infielders known as officers; nonconformist officers who "exist like beached fish within the system."

With an empathic ear, and perhaps a tape recorder, Mr. Just carefully records the words and thoughts of soldiers as they retreat and regroup. The first five chapters sound like stanzas of a swan song, sung by entertainers who don't know when the act went stale.

Paul Denison, "The Army—and How to Survive It," in The Christian Science Monitor (reprinted by permission from The Christian Science Monitor; (© 1971 The Christian Science Publishing Society; all rights reserved), February 11, 1971, p. 11.

The Virginia Quarterly Review

[Military Men, the] fast-paced but episodic account of the "new" American army, is journalese at its best. Too thin to be history and too unsystematic to be sociology, it is nonetheless a document of considerable authority. Though the widely known chapter on West Point is in some respects the most interesting (and frightening), those on Fort Hood and Fort Lewis are equally penetrating and considerably more graphic. The author draws no general conclusions, but the men who train, fight, drink, love, gripe, and mark time through these pages do. The picture they paint is one of an army in deep trouble over discipline, race relations, the intrusion of changing civilian values, and, above all, an unpopular war. (p....

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L. J. Davis

Locked within almost every first-rate journalist there seems to be a third-rate novelist fairly shrieking to be let out. It is a familiar phenomenon, rather along the lines of an occupational disease, and if I pause here for a moment to dwell on it, I do so in part to put off the dread moment when [Nicholson at Large], Ward Just's second third-rate novel in five years, will have to be discussed. It is not a prospect to be looked forward to….

They have such high hopes—the Ward Justs, the Joe Flahertys, the Harrison Salisburys, the Jimmy Breslins, to name but a few. Their earnestness, their dedication, their devotion is graven large on every opaque sentence they write, on every...

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Arthur Cooper

Like many novels about Washington, ["Nicholson at Large"] is both an attack on the abuses of power and a skillfully camouflaged roman-à-clef…. (p. 92B)

There is about Just's work an ironic detachment, a gelid intelligence. Like Harold Pinter, whom he admires, he knows how to achieve artistry through cryptic ambiguity. The reader has to peer hard at the spare, lean prose: his characters deceive each other—and themselves—not by what they say but by what they don't say. And while self-deception may be the book's apparent theme, Just, as in his previous novel, "Stringer," works on other levels. Allegorically, "Nicholson at Large" is also an understatement about the deferred dreams and fore-closed...

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Doris Grumbach

We often talk about the old-fashioned novel, a genre that has all but disappeared from the lists of quality fiction. What we mean by the term is a storytelling novel, peopled with characters who are quickly established in our minds: No ambiguity exists about what is happening or who is acting or why. The old-fashioned novelist tells us everything he knows about his story, and it is usually enough to satisfy our curiosity. His narrative has a beginning, a middle, and an end that strikes the reader as both inevitable and complete. Old-fashioned fiction is "well-made," to use a term often applied to the plays of the French dramatist Sardou.

Ward Just writes this kind of novel and has apprenticed himself...

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The New Yorker

[A Family Trust is a] slow-moving but eloquent book about a Midwestern family, the Risings, and their feelings for and connections with the small Republican town whose newspaper they run. In describing the lives of several generations of newspapermen and their families from the nineteen-thirties to almost the present, Mr. Just really gives us a subtle mid-century profile of the Midwest (where he grew up). From the family patriarch, Amos Rising, whose shadow dogs his three sons even after his death, to the independent-minded, freedom-loving daughter of the newspaper's last family editor and publisher, all the Risings are touching in their struggle to come to terms with their region's "landlocked sense of...

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Jonathan Yardley

The prevailing subjects in Ward Just's fiction … are politics, war and, more recently, the Middle West. His view of all three is bleak and ironic, yet it is tempered by affection: Mr. Just genuinely likes politicians, understands the appeal of warfare and loves his native Middle West … even as he despairs of what has happened to it. Thus his fiction has an ambigious quality that is most effective, providing as it does an underlying tension and an appreciation of complexity.

"Honor, Power, Riches, Fame, and the Love of Women" is a collection of six stories, two of them rather long, the others little more than extended vignettes. All are fine, for the simple reason that Mr. Just is a fine stylist....

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D. Keith Mano

"Media" is one of those prodigal words: long ago it left home to set up a bachelor loft in SoHo. Yet the progenitorial meaning deserves regard. "Medium. 1. a middle state or condition; mean." E.g.: steaks done media rare.

Media people inhabit a forlorn sheol: homeless, separate, strung between fact and fact-chosen-for-public-edification….

Ward Just, who has been a war correspondent, can appreciate the media between-world. His arresting, cohesive collection [Honor, Power, Riches, Fame, and the Love of Women] (two novellas, four short stories) will modulate and vary this distinctive theme. There are six people: all have been, in some degree, detached or bereaved by an...

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Publishers Weekly

[With "In the City of Fear," Just] has produced another fine novel about the Washington scene, one so authentic and honest in its portrayal of the political era of the past 20 years that it reads like fact not fiction. The three central figures are Congressman Piatt Warden, ambitious and ready to compromise his integrity if it will help him get ahead; his wife, Marina; and Sam Joyce, the colonel whom she loves passionately, and who has given his life to living up to his duty in Washington and in Vietnam. They come across as a very real and believable human beings, as do the dozens of friends and colleagues whose own stories interlock with theirs. The terrible pressures and fears that are always a part of the...

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Jonathan Yardley

Ward Just's new novel [In the City of Fear], like the eight works of fiction and nonfiction that preceded it, is preoccupied with two subjects: Washington and Vietnam, which happen also to be where Just spent most of his career as a journalist. Its characters, like those in his previous work, occupy the upper and upper-middle tiers of the power structure; its settings are the corridors and salons of power that they inhabit; its themes, though addressed from various directions and angles, involve the ways in which power is exercised and the moral dilemmas it poses.

Beyond any doubt, In the City of Fear is Just's most ambitious attempt to grapple with these matters. It is not a work of...

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Jack Beatty

"The security system was on the blink." Thus the first sentence of [In the City of Fear, a] fine novel about a highly placed set of Washingtonians after, during, and before the Vietnam War. The sentence refers to a burglar alarm but its connotations reach to the war, as do so many seemingly quotidian images, details, and events in this novel. Wallpaper in a Georgetown dining room, for example, alludes to the war by depicting a battle of the American Revolution, the imperial British in full retreat. Or a man, a staffer of the Kennedy National Security Council, is killed, run over by a drunk driver on busy Eye Street; this connects to the war by being an absurd death, a man in his prime, no meaning to it at all....

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