Ward Just is now in his late 70s and writing as well as — no, better than — he ever has. I am a passionate admirer of many of his previous books, notably “A Family Trust” (1978), “An Unfinished Season” (2004) and “Exiles in the Garden” (2009), but “American Romantic” may well be the best of them all, which is the highest compliment I can pay it. All of Just’s familiar people, places and themes are present here, but he has refined and elevated them to new levels. This is fiction as it should be and so rarely is: opening our eyes to things we don’t know about worlds we think we know well and transporting us to worlds totally alien to us. In an American literary landscape too dominated by puerile and narcissistic self-indulgence, “American Romantic” is a genuinely grown-up novel.
The two central places in Just’s fiction are Washington and Vietnam. He worked in the former as a reporter for this newspaper, which he left a decade before I arrived, and he covered the latter as one of those brilliant correspondents who did so much to shape our understanding of that terrible, incomprehensibly wasteful and pointless war. There’s relatively little of Washington in “American Romantic” — though its protagonist, Harry Sanders, is briefly posted to the State Department — and a great deal of Vietnam in its first half. The country where Sanders serves as a Foreign Service officer is simply located in Indochina, but it’s obviously Vietnam, and the conflict into which American troops are being inexorably drawn is of course the Vietnam War:
“The war fit no known precedent or pattern in American history with the possible exception of the Revolutionary War. It was sui generis and unspeakably tedious unless you were engaged with it day by day. When you were there, the war was your entire life, as seductive as the sun now disappearing over the western hills, their outlines becoming indistinct.”
Harry, who is in his late 20s as the novel begins, concludes early on that “my fate was to witness events I didn’t understand and would never understand.” Foremost among these is an encounter with a handful of Vietnamese in an obscure hamlet, Village Number Five, deep in the jungle. An elderly man — the headman of the hamlet — emerges from a hut carrying what Harry first assumes to be a child and then realizes is a dying woman. As Harry watches, four young men carrying rifles emerge almost from thin air, facing him menacingly yet not firing until he has turned and walked away, leaving him to understand “that he would have this story for the rest of his life and in time it would become as shopworn as a much-used passport, the visa stamps smudged, illegible dates, illegible signatures, the hodge-podge of a traveler’s life.”
A second traumatizing event occurs soon thereafter, when the American ambassador asks Harry to undertake a dangerous, top-secret mission: to penetrate the jungle once again and to meet with representatives of the enemy, which has signaled — so at least it appears — a willingness to talk. While on this mission, he is detained, but, miraculously, he manages to escape from the isolated place in which his unfriendly hosts have confined him and to return, seriously injured but alive, to the unnamed place that obviously is Saigon, but again he knows he has been scarred for life. He will have stories to tell, he knows (and he is a gifted raconteur), but different ones: “The stories would not involve high diplomacy, George Kennan in Moscow or Belgrade, because there was no high diplomacy here. Perhaps low diplomacy, an unsuccessful mission into the swampy southern jungle, for example. . . . Cities and their rivers cast shadows, and he knew that these would cast shadows as long as he lived, moments of truth so to speak.”
These shadows go in many directions, most of which have to do with the role of the United States in the post-World War II world. Inadvertently and not entirely to its satisfaction, America had become a colossus, and “a colossus was heedless, difficult to manage, so many irons in so very many fires.” In Indochina and everywhere else — eventually Harry’s first ambassadorship takes him to “a noisy Mediterranean nation, and in the years to come three more embassies, and it had to be said that these embassies, though quietly important, were on the margins of crisis” — Americans are intruders, barging into places where they want to help but places they simply do not understand.
While he is in Indochina, Harry has a brief, ardent affair with Sieglinde, a German X-ray technician on a hospital ship anchored in Saigon. She tells him, “I think you are an American romantic, Harry,” a thought she utters again in a different context while talking to a fellow German who has come to America and immersed himself in as many of its ways as he can. She thinks: “There were so many Americans in the world. Everywhere she went she found Americans. Americans went everywhere and seemed untroubled.” So she tells this man, “Americans are romantic,” to which he replies: “I would not say romantic. I would say optimistic. Yet it is true that optimism is a precondition of the romantic temperament. So I cannot disagree with you entirely.”
Harry comes from privileged circumstances, not quite as wealthy as many of his neighbors in leafy Connecticut but wealthy enough. His parents often had Sunday luncheons for their neighbors, among them a congresswoman and a brigadier general, people who held and exercised power in one form or another yet remained somewhat distant from the real world in which that power was felt. These are insiders, and Harry is one himself, as he confesses to a friend:
“That was the world they lived in, Harry said, and the world I’ve known since I was seven years old. I was attracted to it. I still am. And then in the bat of an eye I was fifty years old and an ambassador myself, searching, as Dean Acheson put it, like a blind man in a dark room for a black cat that isn’t there. And do you want to know something else? The stakes are not small. This world is filled with mischief, and more than mischief. Time retreats. Time advances. Time is discontinuous. Time is always in motion, like the waves of a great sea. And failure is more commanding than success.”
Failure is also more likely to occur than success, as postwar experience should have taught America; yet although, as Harry says, “at my father’s table failure was more instructive, more revealing, than success,” we have not learned its lessons. Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan: These and other places have shown that our optimism — our innocence, our romanticism, whatever one cares to call it — persists in flagrant ignorance of reality and leads us, over and over again, into quagmires from which we have never wholly extricated ourselves.
This gives “American Romantic” a topical edge, but it is anything except a mere novel of the moment. Without being in the slightest imitative, it recalls Graham Greene, the Greene of “The Quiet American” and “The Human Factor.” Like the best of Just’s earlier work, it contains fully realized characters — take special note of Basso Earle, the American ambassador who is Harry’s early mentor, “an easy man to underestimate” — and prose the sinewy yet supple elegance of which has too rarely been seen in American fiction of any era. It recalls Henry James of his early and middle periods or Peter Taylor throughout his career, and puts to shame far too many of those now publishing fiction in this country. “American Romantic” is the best new work of American fiction I have read in a very long time.
By Ward Just
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 265 pp. $26