Ward S(wift) Just L. J. Davis - Essay

L. J. Davis

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 704 words.)