Suggested by George Lynch:
An excerpt from Ward Just’s novel, American Romantic, 2014
Harry was quiet once again. Then he said, I grew up in Connecticut. That’s like growing up in your chateau country down near the Loire. Most Sundays we’d have a splendid lunch with the squires, our neighbors, a congresswoman and her husband, a professional soldier and his wife, two bankers , other locals, including a retired ambassador and various characters who had been in and out of government. The congresswoman was an excellent mimic and hilarious as she went about describing the legislative sausage machine. Brigadier General Candless was similarly superb on military science and tactics, including the Bulge in 1944. He had taken part in it. The bankers were entertaining as they went about demystifying Wall Street, or trying to. Where my mother and father fit into this company I cannot say, except they were fine hosts. Everyone was fond of them. I think it’s fair to say my parents established a sphere of intimacy, almost of confidentiality, at their Sunday table. No one had to say, This stays in the room among us. Everyone knew that the conversation stayed in the room and the remarkable, or contradictory, fact was that indiscretions were rare. These were people of the wider world and sexual or financial escapades had no real interest for them unless a president, a secretary of state or defense, or the speaker of the House was implicated, whereupon the worm of malice began to crawl as at any other table. But that aside, the company rarely spoke of current events but of things of the past, the general’s campaigns, the congresswoman’s battles with Senator Joe McCarthy. Elections won and lost, wars won, stalemated, or lost, promises kept, promises broken. I would say also that the atmosphere was often melancholy. At my father’s table failure was more instructive, more revealing, than success.
The admiral nodded thoughtfully, adding a ghost of a smile. Thing was, Harry went on, all the stories they told had something missing. This, it seemed to me then as it does now, is common among government people. Congresswoman Finch, for example, in describing the eternal struggle over foreign aid was meticulous in her account of who said what to whom and when, the politics of it, the influence of the lobbyists. But at a certain point she shrugged and changed the subject. To go beyond that certain point might have – would have- undermined faith in the system. She had realized she was addressing – I suppose the word would be civilians. Brigadier General Candless was eloquent on the progress of the Battle of the Bulge, an account drawn from a set-piece annual lecture he delivered to senior cadets at West Point. He had the names of the principal officers and their units, which performed well and which performed badly. The flow of the engagement. He had the German order of battle. He noted the weather, the terrain, and the fortifications. He quoted from diaries and after-action reports. Still, there was something between the lines where you found a hint of something else, something excruciating, beyond words, unspeakable. The hint was indistinct, a single voice in the chorus of a thousand. Brigadier General Candless was an intelligent man and knew a blank space when he saw it, and the same was true of Congresswoman Finch, even the bankers. As they were talking there would come a moment when their voices trailed off and any attentive listener would know they were deep in their memories, pondering what they were unable – not unwilling but unable – to say aloud. The missing piece. All the stories had missing pieces that spoke to motive and perhaps misprision or something very like misprision. This was something personal and inexplicable, the fact that refused to fall in line with the other facts. A black sheep fact, important enough to make a tidy account a little less tidy. To grasp it you had to have been there. More than any other single thing you had to understand the context, what was at stake and the consequences. No civilian could know that, even the worldly civilians around the Regency table at my father’s house. These were inside jobs. That was the world they lived in.
Review in Booklist:
In this deft portrait of a promising young foreign service officer, Just reaches back to the earliest, hazy days leading up to the “misbegotten” Vietnam War, a time and place he witnessed firsthand. Though he never names the country Harry Sanders is posted in, Just describes it with molecular particularity, from the roiling city streets to the malevolence of the deep jungle, creating an arresting visual lexicon drawn from the paintings of Matisse, Vuillard, and Munch. This adds evocative textures to Just’s lushly sensuous and moodily introspective tale while also conveying Harry’s cultural legacy as a man born to privilege in orderly Connecticut, the opposite of this dense, lacerating land. Stubborn and idealistic, Harry envisions a bright future as a diplomat with the beautiful if haunted Sieglinde at his side, though they hardly know each other. She tags him as an “American romantic.” He sees himself as a “connoisseur of the counterfeit and the inexplicable” after a dangerous, clandestine mission and Sieglinde’s abrupt disappearance leave him hobbled and scarred. As Just circles forward and back to tell their dramatic stories, he dissects the romance, presumption, nobility, and futility of the diplomatic life and weighs the stoniness of the past. Master writer Just’s eighteenth novel is elegantly structured, worldly wise, shrewdly suspenseful, and profoundly satisfying. –Donna Seaman
About Ward Just and his work.