Ward S(wift) Just Jack Beatty - Essay

Jack Beatty

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"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. These and like details fill a space of allegory, connecting the texture of the novel not only with the fate of the characters but with the fate of the nation…. I should make clear, however, that Ward Just has not written a disguised essay on What Vietnam Did to America. In fact, though it carries historical allegory, his novel is a solid fiction in its own right about a handful of government insiders caught up in a war that got away from them.

A Washington novel, then, the kind of fiction that is not considered serious, not in the same class with Philip Roth's memoirs of whacking off, or Ann Beattie's tales of how Nick met Debbie at a Stones concert. America is about power, but make this a theme in fiction and you will be taped: genre writer; can't be profound. Next. To be sure, Just is no Dostoevsky; public personality is his beat, not the depths. Still, he manages the trick. With a touch of cliché here, a dab of knowledge there, a little mystery over on this side, he peoples a fictional world with credible characters and makes us believe in it and care about them. (p. 40)

Jack Beatty, "The Home Front," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1982 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 187, No. 17, October 25, 1982, pp. 40-3.