By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, July 5, 2009
EXILES IN THE GARDEN
By Ward Just
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
279 pp. $25
For nearly a century the received wisdom in political Washington has been drawn from the famous speech Theodore Roosevelt delivered at the Sorbonne in April 1910. "It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better," he said. "The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood . . . ; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of his achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory or defeat."
Three and a half decades ago those words served as epigraph for "Facing the Lions," Tom Wicker's fine if now regrettably forgotten novel about ambition and power in Washington as seen through the story of a senator transparently based on the late Estes Kefauver of Tennessee. The words never appear directly in Ward Just's even better novel, "Exiles in the Garden," but they always lurk just beneath the surface as Just examines, with subtlety, sensitivity and empathy, the lives of two men: Alec Malone, his protagonist, now about 70 years old, for whom "the civic life of the nation held no attraction," and his father, Erwin Harold "Kim" Malone, 95 years old, who "had been a senator for nine terms, fifty-four years, retired now for a decade and still alert on good days."
Just, who himself was very much in the arena for Newsweek and The Washington Post during the 1960s (he left the paper a dozen years before I arrived, and we have never met), most notably as a correspondent in Vietnam, said farewell to that arena upon his departure and has been a writer of fiction ever since. "Exiles in the Garden" is his 16th novel and is, for my money, one of his three best, the others being "A Family Trust" (1978) and "An Unfinished Season" (2004). He summarized the preoccupations of his fiction in the title of a short story collection published in 1979: "Honor, Power, Riches, Fame, and the Love of Women," though fathers and sons certainly should be added to that list. His books have never had spectacular sales, but most of them are still in print, impressive evidence that he has a loyal following even in this difficult time for the book industry.
Like most of the rest of Just's fiction, "Exiles in the Garden" is deceptively quiet. It moves at a leisurely, reflective, even pensive pace, but the reader never loses sight of an undercurrent of tension. Alec is an only child whom his father envisioned going into politics, "commencing a dynasty; state attorney general, his father thought, then governor, and after that anything was possible." Alec, though, "preferred Shakespeare's life to the life of any one of his kings or pretenders, tormented men always grasping for that thing just out of reach." He became a photographer, went to work for a newspaper in Washington and did well, was asked by the managing editor if he'd like to do a six-week tour in Vietnam and responded with a "no thank you, he had a wife and young daughter," a choice that derailed his career but was true to his conviction that "photography glorifies," that "it's not trustworthy."
The choice derailed his marriage as well. Lucia, his wife, born Czech but reared by her mother in wartime Switzerland, ran off with Nikolas, a dashing Hungarian, "a prodigy, a full professor of literature, a fixture in the lecture halls and at the many discreet protest meetings in Prague and Budapest and beyond." Taking their daughter Mathilde with her, she swept off to Europe, leaving Alec alone in a little house in Georgetown.
Alec was startled and saddened by the letter he received from Lucia, telling him of her decision, but he got on about the business of life. He has since fashioned a career as freelance photographer and has developed "the usual habits of one who lived alone: a fixed diet, a weekly visit to the bookstore, a scrupulously balanced checkbook, and a devotion to major league baseball and the PGA Tour." He also has occasional liaisons with Annalise, a lovely and talented but second-tier actress in movies and television. He is faithful to her and she, apparently, to him, but theirs is a sometime thing; Alec is content with his bachelor life, his freelance assignments, his visits with Mathilde, who is now in her 40s and working, successfully, for the State Department.
Thus "Exiles in the Garden" is not a "Washington novel" as the term is commonly understood, but it is very much in and of this city. Just deftly and sharply portrays the Washington that Alec had known as a boy and young man, the Washington in which his father had flourished as "a cloakroom man, his arm around someone's shoulder, a whispered confidence, a promise, often a threat." The Washington of the 1960s was still a quiet Southern city, having a rigid social structure with blacks firmly kept at the bottom, modest Fords and Chevys parked on Georgetown's streets, a palpable sense of promise and excitement as the young Kennedy Administration settled in. Now, though:
"The grandes dames were gone. The elder statesmen were gone. The small town of [Alec's] youth was now a metropolis spilling over into the Virginia and Maryland countryside, farther each year. When you looked at the downtown, with its barriers and snipers on the roof of the White House, you could believe you were living in a garrison state. Alec noticed that his street was crowded with German automobiles, the large versions."
In that lost Washington, when Alec and Lucia lived on the quiet Georgetown street, next door to them lived an elegant émigré couple who had regular cocktail parties in their rear garden, parties for other "displaced Europeans." Lucia was drawn to them, "finding something indomitable about them because they had lived through terrible times and had survived," and was delighted when she and Alec were invited to the parties. He, on the other hand, saw the partygoers as "damaged goods, a second-rate theatrical troupe giving nightly performances of the heartbreak of central Europe." Then, long after his divorce, he meets Lucia's father, Andre Duran, who "had fought bravely in the war and been imprisoned first by the Nazis and then by the Soviets for what appeared to be decades." Alec is "all but overcome with admiration for Andre Duran, whose endurance seemed to him all but superhuman," in contrast with his own life and his "knack for making beautiful pictures." Andre tries to explain that he "had no choice" except to go to war and fight as bravely as he could, but Alec remains unconvinced.
Alec tells Annalise that Andre "reminded me of my father," because "those in the arena lived by the arena's rules, always opaque to outsiders." She replies, "Let up on yourself, Alec. You're an honorable man," but he remains unconvinced. Ward Just knows, though, that he is wrong, that there is honor outside the arena as well as in, that Alec's quiet life has had more than its share of dignity, accomplishment and resonance. It is not necessary to be a senator or a resistance warrior in order to make a contribution to the larger world.