AN UNFINISHED SEASON

By Ward Just

Houghton Mifflin. 251 pp. $24 In the three and a half decades since the publication of his first novel, A Soldier of the Revolution, Ward Just has established himself as one of the most accomplished and admirable American writers of his time. With An Unfinished Season, he puts an exclamation point on that. Whether it is actually his best novel can be debated -- I have a soft spot for A Family Trust (1978) -- but there can be no doubt that it is on all counts a splendid piece of work: leisurely in pace and meditative in tone, as is much of Just's writing, but also emotionally freighted, witty and sophisticated, and powerfully evocative of both the time (the early 1950s) and the place (Chicago) in which it is set.

Now in his late sixties, Just has published 14 novels, three short-story collections, two works of nonfiction and one play. Older readers of The Washington Post will recall that in the late 1960s he reported for it from Vietnam with great distinction and wrote those two works of nonfiction -- To What End (1968) and Military Men (1970) -- while on staff here. In 1970 he left The Post and daily journalism to become a full-time writer of books. He and I have never met or corresponded -- I joined the paper more than a decade after he left -- though doubtless we have mutual friends.

The transition from journalism to literature is tricky, and not many people make the full leap. Most fiction written by journalists is, like journalism itself, of the moment and thus inherently evanescent. But those writers who made the leap -- Gail Godwin, Theodore Dreiser, Ernest Hemingway, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Graham Greene, Mario Vargas Llosa, Fyodor Dostoyevsky -- have been well served by their newsroom experience. Journalism has many flaws, as readers so often remind us, but it also has qualities that can be turned into assets by the aspiring writer of fiction. It requires people to ask questions rather than assume they know all the answers, it encourages people to look at the larger world beyond themselves rather than the little one within, it accords high importance to story line and narrative rigor, and it tends to develop an accurate ear for human speech.

Ward Just learned these lessons well. His fiction is keenly observant, as the best journalism is, and he is especially interested in power, a subject that journalists find endlessly beguiling. He has written about how power is sought, used and abused in Washington, about power and influence in the press itself, about power as it materializes in human relationships. He is an astute observer of politics and politicians (Adlai Stevenson plays a cameo role in An Unfinished Season, and plays it beautifully) but to the best of my knowledge has never ground a partisan or ideological ax in his writing. He is fascinated by the ordinary humanity behind the apparatus of power, and explores it with utterly unsentimental sympathy.

The wielder of power in An Unfinished Season is Teddy Ravan, the 50-year-old father of the novel's narrator, Wilson Ravan, who is 19 years old at the time these events take place but who views them from the vantage point of the early 1990s. Teddy owns and operates a printing shop in a suburb of Chicago. The business is successful, but the old easy relationship between management and labor has corroded in the altered atmosphere of postwar America:

"He believed things were out of control, by which he meant directed by unseen hands. He knew that something had changed with the winning of the war and the unquiet peace that followed. He knew this from conversations with his friends at the club, and listening to the men on the floor talking about their new Ford coupe or the Johnson outboard they had their eye on, and the washing machine their wives were after them to buy. Commotion was in the air, both grievance and a new sense of destination. The whole nation had won the war and the whole nation was entitled to share in the victory. My father looked into the eyes of this new face and saw something of himself; but still he would not yield. . . . He ignored the stubbornness of the union and failed to detect the determination of the men to share in the new prosperity. When the strike came he was unprepared. He felt betrayed, as if he were the object of a coup d'etat."

Against this background of change, uncertainty and tension, Wilson plays out his own quiet drama, "traveling from one realm to another, crossing the line that divided youth and maturity." A great deal happens to him. His family's beloved house in a suburb called Quarterday is attacked, though no serious injury is inflicted. His grandfather dies, leaving his mother bereft and confused. He goes to one debutante party after another on the fashionable North Shore, but spends his days at a summer job with a raffish downtown newspaper. He falls in love with a beautiful, mysterious girl named Aurora Brune, with consequences that are surprising (to him and the reader alike) and that have lasting effects on him. For him it is a time of "discovering how disturbed life could be and how unexpected its events and how unsettled and discouraging, all in the space of a summer."

It is a book about growing up, but it's anything except a coming-of-age novel. Wilson Ravan is a mature man looking back at "all these summer fragments" and still seeking "coherence" in them, rather than the self-absorbed adolescent one is accustomed to encountering in the conventional novel of the genre. He spends the summer in "three parallel worlds: the newspaper, the parties, and the house in Quarterday," and he understands with delight that "each day was a fabulous journey to the unknown." Both during the summer itself and four decades later, he casts a clinical eye on his circumstances and himself -- "It did not seem to me that you could fashion a life until you could make the decisions that governed it" -- with a maturity and honest self-scrutiny that never were granted to, say, Holden Caulfield.

It is an immense pleasure to watch -- indeed, to participate in -- Wilson's struggle toward self-awareness, but that is scarcely the only pleasure offered by An Unfinished Season. It seems to me that Just has never been so observant as he is here, and that his prose has never been so layered and rich. There are innumerable passages that I could quote at length, but two must suffice. Just seems to have gotten out of newspaper work as fast as other opportunities allowed, but clearly he has never lost his affection for it (at least as it was practiced when he was young), and he writes about it with humor and love. Yes, Wilson "had no intention of becoming a newspaper reporter, then or later. The work was repetitive and easily grasped and didn't lead anywhere I wanted to go," but:

"I loved my job -- grace and favor from the publisher, who was a golfing friend of my father's -- and the atmosphere of the newsroom, never quite real, as if the people we wrote about were mere characters in a play or novel who did not exist outside the narrow columns of type. Its atmosphere was as special and specific as the locker room or infantry bivouac with its own language and code of conduct, as disheveled as life itself, a man's cruel world where the odds were eternally six-to-five against. The paper was a carnival of love nests, revenge killings, machine graft, and Communists deep in the apparatus of state and national government. . . . It was easy enough for me to believe that the world of the newsroom was the real world, wised-up and unforgiving, brutal as a matter of course, life's mediator, but always with a reassuring insinuation of the indomitable American spirit asserting itself in countless miniature acts of selflessness."

That is smart, witty and true. Newsrooms and newspapers aren't that way any more, but that is exactly how they were then, and Just has preserved them as carefully and perfectly as a butterfly pinned in a glass box. Ditto for Chicago:

"Chicago itself had a nineteenth-century identity, a noisy, unlovely city of iron and concrete, a city on the grab, fundamentally lawless, its days spent chasing money and its nights spending it; loveliness was always just beyond the point. The city had elbow room but God help you if you fell behind because there was always a more muscular elbow. The city was ruled by a half-dozen old white men to suit themselves. You were permitted to go about your business so long as your business didn't interfere with their business. If it did, they invited themselves in. In its cosmic indifference, the city of Chicago resembled a mighty turbine, three and a half million souls oiling the gears and tending the works while the supervisors stood around reading the racing form. I was 19 years old and that was my view of things after my circus summer at the newspaper -- an unlovely city, not unloved. I knew that wherever I would go in the world, Chicago was the place I would return to and recognize at once, its fedora pulled down over one eye, a wisecrack already forming in its mouth."

Just about perfect, it says here. Every once in a while -- not often, for sure -- an author does a reviewer a favor and writes a book with such elegance, elan and acuity that the only way to review it -- to give readers some sense of the pleasures that await them in it -- is to quote from it, at length and with gratitude. John Gregory Dunne did that a couple of months ago with another novel about the heartland, Nothing Lost; now Ward Just does it with An Unfinished Season. A beautiful, wise book. *

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com.