By Ward Just
Houghton Mifflin. 258 pp. $25
Ward Just's thrillers are so subtle that they risk sounding dull, as though he's engaged in a battle against excess and bombast. The movement in his stories is slight, but the forces at work are tremendous. That muted power has never been more unsettling than in his new novel, a response to Sept. 11 that stretches the boundaries of an already voluminous genre. Even his wistful title, Forgetfulness , signals that Just is exploring something very different from what we find in John Updike's bestselling Terrorist . This story takes place deep in the shadow of Sept. 11, but it contains neither the raw bitterness of Ken Kalfus's A Disorder Peculiar to the Country nor the tender sadness of Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close . Instead, Just tries to portray the state of mind Emily Dickinson described when she wrote, "After great pain a formal feeling comes -- / The nerves sit ceremonious like tombs."
Just divides his time between Martha's Vineyard and Paris, and that bifocal perspective informs this cool exploration of the battle between America and jihadist terror. The story takes place in St. Michel du Valcabrère, a quaint village near the Pyrenees Mountains, a setting far removed from geopolitical conflict.
The opening chapter describes the final hours in the life of Florette DuFour, a 54-year-old woman who has broken her ankle during her regular Sunday walk along one of the solitary trails in the snow-topped mountains. We see her in the company of four strange men who carry her on a stretcher, but they make no attempt to communicate with her -- or keep her from freezing to death. Her thoughts, punctuated by pain and anxiety, wander across her life, from her girlhood in St. Michel to earlier that afternoon when she left her husband and his friends talking in the living room. It's an extraordinary chapter (anthologizers, take note), deeply unnerving, apparently haphazard, but in fact brilliantly constructed to convey much about Thomas Railles, her devoted husband, his determination to keep her cradled in safety, and his conflicted relationship with America.
The rest of the novel studies Thomas's reaction to the death of his beloved wife; he knows instinctively that his response will determine the nature of the rest of his life. Though Florette probably died of exposure, it's also clear that she was accompanied by -- or captured by? -- several people, one of whom slit her throat. The shaken villagers assume this atrocity is the work of Castille drug traffickers, but Thomas suspects a more terrifying explanation. A successful painter, he once worked for the CIA, doing minor surveillance jobs that blended effortlessly with his work as an artist. Could it be that despite his best efforts to remove himself from that world of intrigue, some offended party has struck down his wife in an act of long-delayed payback?
Though he tries to discourage them, two old friends from the CIA insist on pursuing the murder investigation through back channels. Thomas would rather settle into the stunned silence of grief and remembrance. "Desire in all forms had left him," Just writes, "and what he wanted now was to live quietly in a simple fashion, keep his own counsel, and find a means to begin painting again. . . . He lacked anger of the sort that swept all before it and became a cause in itself, a way of life, the anger of the American . . . after September 11." But then, unexpectedly, he receives an invitation to witness the secret interrogation of the four Moroccan terrorists who killed his wife.
What an awful test of a man's stoicism -- and how carefully Just examines that challenge in these pages. Of course, a side of Thomas would like nothing more than to watch his wife's killers be tortured to death in the unmarked basement of some French warehouse. One of his old CIA friends, an ominous symbol of the new privatized security forces that profit from the war on terror, assures Thomas that observing the interrogation will "bring closure," but Thomas suspects that this promise is a cheat. He's revolted by the climate of "revenge sweeping the nation . . . the full fury of righteous American anger."
The interrogation scene, when it finally arrives, is another striking set piece. Though it seems to pass almost in real time and involves very little action or speech, it's propelled by a palpable sense of dread and the anticipation of violence. The lives of four horrible men hang in the balance, of course, but so does the conscience of one good man, and the combination is riveting.
Just makes no easy declarations in this often arduously analytical novel. Listening to "the evening news reporting casualties from Iraq . . . the details, unchanging from one evening to the next," Thomas knows that forgetfulness is not a reasonable response to assault, either personal or national. But he also knows the utter futility of vengeance. This is the paradox that wrenches him in this mature meditation on the personal, private grief that's cultivated in a global war on terror, the search for subtle moral truths in a climate of slogans and curses. ·
Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World.