NO ONE TODAY is creating better short fiction about Washington's interests than Ward Just; he is one of the few authors who writes well about how men inside or never far outside of the nation's capital think and work.
In The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert and Other Washington Stories, Just's critically acclaimed previous collection, he wrote about crises in the lives of ambitious Washingtonians (a senator's wife has an affair with a newspaper journalist who is trying to destroy her husband's career; a Roman Catholic senator tries to decide the least politically damaging means of announcing a separation from his wife, etc.). Now, in his new collection, Honor, Power, Riches, Fame, and the Love of Women, Just appears to be coming closer to an even deeper understanding of Washington, the relationships between grown men and women, and contemporary life itself. He sees that ambivalence and impulse, confrontation and negotiation have as much to do with what goes on between Washington and Moscow, among women and men, or in the course of lives as do power and trust. As Just so clearly perceives, one must be sensitive to nuance in order to survive.
In the opening novella, from which this collection takes its name, an upstate New York congressman, in line to become assistant majority leader of the House, visits the Georgetown apartment of the sculptor with whom he has been having an affair. He must now break off their relationship for the good of his political career. Before he can tell her, he learns she has just been offered an important gallery show in Paris.
"'We'll be apart for longer than we ever have,' she said. 'Since this began. If you can't escape, and I suppose you can't. I suppose that isn't possible.' She stopped talking and looked at me. 'You won't, will you?'
I ignored the verb. 'No, I said."
In "Cease-fire," the surprisingly busy but touching closing novella, a middle-aged American lawyer is granted temporary leave from the United Nations cease-fire team on, one supposes, Cyprus. He stops over in Athens on his way to London where he is to meet his wife. In Athens, he meets and falls headlong into a totally unanticipated affair with a free-spirited, much younger woman, thereby violating the cease-fire of his marriage. While recovering in a Barcelona hospital from the accident that focused attention on his indiscretion, he is visited by one of his fellow negotiators and asks him whether his wife and the younger woman have met: "He said that they had. And what was the atmosphere of the meeting? He paused before replying. "I would describe the atmosphere as 'correct.'"
I have mixed feelings about knowing biographical details of the authors I admire. On the one hand, I like knowing the background and "credentials" that enable an author to write so knowledgeably about certain experiences and places; on the other hand, I don't want details of a writer's personal life to intrude upon critical appreciation. I like knowing that Ward Just was born and raised in the Midwest where this collection's title story and his 1977 novel, A Family Trust, are set; that he has been a journalist for 15 years (a journalist and a newspaper reporter manque were the major characters of his 1974 novel Stringer and his 1975 novel Nicholson at Large). I like knowing that Just was a reporter for Newsweek ; that he covered Washington, Cyprus and Barcelona, among other places, for The Washington Post; and, that he spent 18 months for The Post reporting the political scene and the war in Vietnam until he was seriously wounded and brought home. Not surprisingly, three of the short stories in his new collection are set in Vietnam.
In "Dietz at War," a correspondent, despite having been seriously wounded, won't or can't leave Vietnam. In "Journal of a Plague Year," a female war correspondent does leave that country, but learns upon her return, "If anything leaves, it's forgotten, and if it returns, it has to begin again," because Vietnam has "no memory. No loyalties." In the third Vietnam story, "D.," a woman combat photographer succumbs in Vietnam to exhaustion and melancholia, and almost has an affair with the French doctor who treats her in a private hospital outside Saigon.
There is a strange haunting quality to each of these stories -- as if the light were bad. The men have exquisite senses of irony, of intuition, but they grapple with shadows and ghosts. They read Celine, can assemble "symptons, [but] not causes," and are nearly always on the verge of perceiving what is really going on. The women, however, see everything clearly. They consistently make positive and absolutely correct diagnoses of the illness surrounding them. Unlike the men, they are neither dislocated nor self-deceiving. And yet when the men and women talk, they do not speak the same language -- a characteristic that, in hindsight, one realizes was not uncommon whenever the subject was Vietnam.
Just's new collection contains one other short story. In "A Man at the Top of His Trade" a CIA inside-man scrubs an operation, proposed by his best friend and fellow agent, to bring out a third-level bureaucrat.When the woman the inside man is living with asks why, he replies that he canceled the operation because of "instinct informed by experience" and "experience informed by instinct." When the woman persists in trying to break through the man's detachment, he wonders what there is "about him that attracted unhappy women."
Ward Just's major male characters have always been journalists or the sort of political and governmental figures journalists deal with. He creates wonderful women -- often a generation younger than his men. He writes subtly, has that knack for precise detail, and tends to concentrate upon the ambiguous feelings men have about their careers, their women and their past in these changing times. He places his characters into confrontations that demand choices. His people hurt and get hurt; hearts break; and although there is surprisingly little blook, there are always ugly scars which do not fade.
This collection will withstand time very well. The Vietnam stories especially capture that war's dislocating effect. I know of no journalist who spent any sizable amount of time covering Vietnam who isn't still a bit crazy as a result. Ward Just, through his writing, has been more successful than most at exorcising that experience.