Guilt & Compromise

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The New York Sun

Ward Just’s novels are something of a throwback — he writes powerful narratives about attractive people surviving and, occasionally, prevailing under difficult circumstances. And he writes so beautifully — lucid prose full of arresting turns of phrase and formal, melancholic reflection — that you quickly overlook the politics, which are predictably worrisome.

But then no one’s proposing him as a candidate to fix the federal tax code, settle important constitutional issues, or figure out how we should deal with the Middle East. Thank God for that, because surely bad things would happen to good people if he were put in charge of any of the above.

A former correspondent for the Washington Post and Newsweek who cut his teeth in Vietnam, Mr. Just divides his time between Paris and Martha’s Vineyard, where he writes wonderful books that are probably valued for all the wrong reasons (the politics) by his friends and neighbors. For the rest of us there are the stories, which are not unlike the good French wine Mr. Just clearly knows and savors — deep, tannic, and memorable.

His latest, “Forgetfulness” (Houghton Mifflin,272 pages,$25), is set in the present, with the background noise of the Iraq war (he’s critical, of course), and concerns an expatriate painter, Thomas Railles, whose French wife is a victim of Islamic terrorists. It begins in a small town in the Aquitaine, but moves with remarkable, inevitable, it seems, force through a safe house in La Havre to Paris, New York, Wisconsin, Chicago, and, finally, to coastal Maine. Character and incident are filtered primarily through the intelligent and sensitive and supremely sad Railles, who has an authentically existential view of the world that is entirely sympathetic.

Like Ernest Hemingway, a writer whose prose style he sometimes evokes, Mr. Just has a remarkable talent for rendering the thoughts and speech of foreign nationals in English so that they remain foreign sounding without being forced or foolish. This lends verisimilitude to his tale, which above all deals with cultures in conflict.

The opening, which deals with the death of Railles’s wife, Florette, is a tour de force of menace, worthy of the novel’s great masters:

The way down was hard, the trail winding and slick underfoot, insecure. Late autumn, the air cold, no breeze, the setting sun casting long shadows, deceptive in the gathering darkness.The four men carrying the stretcher — two in front, two behind — had begun to curse. In the beginning they were silent, concentrating on their footing, but the way down was so very hard that they could not now restrain themselves, their boots slipping on the damp earth, the stretcher hard to handle. Each time the stretcher tipped, the injured woman groaned, and when a part of her body grazed a rock or a tree branch she gasped, a kind of lumbar whistle, most annoying. They passed through wide-bellied fir trees and slender white birches, the smell of the forest in her nostrils, an odor so thick she found breathing difficult, a weight in her lungs that pressed painfully against her. She was bothered that the pain in her leg was migrating, an unwelcome undocumented alien.

As was the case in Mr. Just’s previous fictions, this novel demonstrates a deep familiarity with guilt and moral compromise. Indeed, it turns out that Railles was a former “odd-jobber” for the CIA, hired by two childhood friends from Wisconsin who had become prominent clandestine agents. Before settling down with Florette, he had a hand in the death of a Spanish communist and there are hints of other questionable deeds. At one point, he even wonders if the murder of his wife was retribution for his own past.

Some of the novel’s most dramatic material concerns the centerpiece interrogation of the Moroccan suspects in Florette’s death by the French police, and Railles’s fateful decision to witness and even participate in the questioning. There is a wonderful surprise twist here, as well as plenty of ammunition for those who favor the “Clash of Civilizations” theory on Islam and the West.

In the end, however, it is Mr. Just’s ability to create a sympathetic character who both acts in and reflects on the world in wholly believable ways that sets him apart from so many people writing novels today. Although he couldn’t be more up to date in his material, the treatment has far more in common with Henry James or Joseph Conrad than with Jonathan Franzen or Martin Amis.

This classicism in storytelling, together with Mr. Just’s equally evident and entirely eclectic devotion to cultural classics from Mozart to Billie Holiday, makes his new novel an occasion to celebrate. And when you come across a passage that shows his reflexively liberal political views, just smile indulgently and turn the page.

Mr. Willcox last wrote for these pages about pirates.

The New York Sun

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