- The Washington Times - Friday, June 10, 2011

RODIN’S DEBUTANTE
By Ward Just
Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, $26 263 pages

To tell the story of Lee Goodell, a “fine young man” if ever there was one, Ward Just goes way around the barn. Instead of telling us that the boy went to Ogden Hall, and how that strange school shaped him, the author tells us how the school came into being, and then, ever so slowly, how this particular boy, an unlikely candidate according to the founder’s vision, came to attend it. But the author’s point - I think - is not the effect of this odd school on this upstanding boy. What interests Mr. Just - but may or may not interest the reader - is Lee Goodell’s “tempora and mores” regarding Northern Illinois in general and the South Side of Chicago in particular. Ogden Hall is but an early link in that chain.

Mr. Just is a tireless writer. Since 1960 he has written 17 novels, three short story collections, two books of non-fiction and a play. He has been a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award.

Many of Mr. Just’s novels and his most famous short story (“The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert”) are about Washington, D.C., but he also has written several times about Illinois, where he grew up and went to school.

Born 75 years ago in Michigan City, Ind., Mr. Just was raised in Waukegan, a city northwest of Chicago, where his staunchly Republican grandfather owned the local paper. Before graduating from Cranbrook, Mr. Just had attended Lake Forest Academy, two schools which would have a hard time denying the adjective “tony.”

So when the author creates a fictional world in which the boy’s father, a judge, is most definitely a pillar of rectitude in the community of Jesper, a small town on Lake Michigan north of Chicago, you know he knows the territory. But I suspect that’s really as far as you can take the autobiographical lead.

The book opens by telling us that Ogden Hall got its name (early in the 20th century) when eccentric millionaire Tommy Ogden (who got his money the really old-fashioned way- he inherited it) decided to leave his wife to her own devices and their mansion to become Ogden Hall, a prep school for boys “who have had trouble fitting in elsewhere, boys of ability who know perfectly well their place in the world but find it denied to them.”

Ogden also leaves behind the bust of the young Chicago debutante, no relation, that had been sculpted by Auguste Rodin himself. Decades later, Lee - the very opposite of the kind of boy for which the school was founded - attends Ogden Hall, and the gorgeous work of art inspires him to become a sculptor.

As fine a young man as Lee is, he does bring some peculiar baggage of his own. Several years earlier, he had eavesdropped on an important meeting held in his judge-father’s study, a crisis-control meeting occasioned by the assault and rape of one of Lee’s classmates, an unpopular and unfortunate girl. All of the town’s most important people - those “who count” - were there, even the editor of the newspaper, and they decide, “for the good of the community,” to suppress the story.

The girl never gets over it, and years later, with Lee now a successful artist and happily married to the brilliant daughter of an important department head at the University of Chicago, she returns to Jesper and contacts Lee’s father, asking for a meeting with her former classmate “who was always nice” to her.

Lee returns to his roots, and the meeting is about as successful as the reader might imagine, given the former classmates’ different lives, past and present. Lee is not unsympathetic, but he lacks the ability, perhaps even the vocabulary, to help her. It all ends in frustration, most definitely with a whimper, not a bang.

Is this Mr. Just’s point? If so, the tale is far closer to the pessimistic naturalism of James T. Farrell’s (in his Chicago-based Studs Lonigan trilogy, and his many other powerful novels of the 1930s to 1960s) than to the optimism of fellow University of Chicago great Saul Bellow (i.e., the buoyant optimism of “The Adventures of Augie March”).

What makes the point of a Ward Just novel sometimes hard to decipher is his fondness for being, as someone put it, “…teasingly oblique.” Or, as Mr. Just himself has said, “…that’s often what happens to my people. My people often don’t wise up until it’s too late.”

That may be why I finished this otherwise well-written novel with an odd sense of dissatisfaction. Maybe the book is so teasingly oblique that, like Mr. Just’s characters, I didn’t wise up until it was too late.

John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

blog comments powered by Disqus

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide