Current Reads

Hall of Mirrors

Ward Just's 16th novel travels D.C. from J.F.K. to the near present.

Book Cover There are probably a few handfuls of writers who fall into the unfortunate category of being designated writers' writers. I say unfortunate because it suggests an explanation for a lack of wide(r) recognition--though ostensibly it is meant as something positive. The late Frederick Busch seemed to be pigeonholed in this manner despite the fact that some of his nearly 30 books of fiction were commercially successful--and there was nothing arcane or exotic about his fiction or person.

Fred, with whom I spoke intermittently over two decades, was very friendly with Ward Just, another author who has written a shelf full of finely crafted novels--now 16, with Exiles in the Garden (Houghton Mifflin).

But let me table any discussion of literary stature and offer something about Just's new narrative. It is set in Washington, D.C., and spans the Kennedy years to the near present, with occasional references to the F.D.R. years. Alec Malone is the only child of a U.S. senator who, to his father's chagrin, forgoes a life of public service and politics to become a photographer. He marries Lucia, a Czech émigré by way of Zurich, and they have a daughter. The story picks up steam as they begin to socialize with their neighbors and the cosmopolitan milieu (at least, Lucia does) of which they are a part, and it is here that we have forewarning of the impact of Lucia's long-missing father, an anti-fascist partisan who disappeared after World War II. Here also is where she meets a Hungarian intellectual for whom she deserts Alec.

Just is acutely observant as he explicates the hall of mirrors that constitutes the culture of Washington, the (once) so-called capital of the free world. And his characterization of Alec's personality--his triumphs and foibles--is as engaging as anyone writing for grown-ups today. I concur with Sven Birkets's engaging conclusion:
Just's novel addresses power, but not in its deployment. Rather, "Exiles in the Garden" seeks to understand the individual's ability--and will--to make a full self-­accounting and to act accordingly. The unexamined life may not be worth living, but the unlived life, examined, yields a stark cautionary wisdom.
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