By Ward Just
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26, 288 pages
Harry Sanders grew up in Connecticut, in a privileged and protected environment. Since childhood, he had wanted to be a diplomat. As Ward Just's new novel, "American Romantic," opens, Harry is a young Foreign Service officer assigned to the American Embassy of an unnamed Southeast Asian country, presumably Vietnam, during a burgeoning war, "not quite a war, more a prelude to a war ... slow-moving but dangerous and sinister. Treacherous."
Harry is sent on a secret, unsanctioned mission to meet a member of the enemy, supposedly because a truce might be possible. The meeting, deep in the jungle, ends in disaster. Harry is left alone, miles from home, ill, without shoes, food or water. "The jungle was a green wall of silence except for the rustle. He had adapted to it as prisoners were said to adapt to their captors. Starlight at night was a reminder of the past, and the brutal heat of the day promised a perilous future. The jungle, like the high seas, did not seem to be a place where people belonged. Human beings were outsiders."
He makes it back, barely alive. His feet are permanently damaged by the trek, and his soul is traumatized when he shoots a young enemy militiaman. The misadventure in the jungle ruins not only Harry's feet, but his career as well.
Harry is posted in various countries in South America, Africa and Europe. In time, he becomes an ambassador, although never to important posts. He was considered a "capable diplomat, better abroad than at home, better behind the scenes than in the footlights. He did enjoy overseas work ... [he] was good with his counterparts and good with the press, arguably too good, too fond of droll stories when he had a glass in his hand."
He is haunted by the memory of the boy he killed and his fleeting, passionate romance in Vietnam with Sieglinde, a German girl, working as a technician on a German hospital ship. Sieglinde had lost both her parents in World War II. She disliked being German and spoke of her past only reluctantly. Germans, Harry thought, "were bound together by their language, not an easy language to learn and, once learned, impossible to forget altogether. Nationality was surely destiny if you were a German of the twentieth century. So many ghosts." Sieglinde disappeared, but their short union left Harry with the memory of a night in a silk-string hammock and the strains of Chopin on his piano.
Time passed. Harry met and married May who "grew up in a hamlet in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom ... So far from God, so close to Canada." At first, she was enthralled by the heady mix of famous people she met at Washington cocktail parties. She was not used to the Foreign Service, "its traditions and customs, its rules, its hierarchies, its formal pace with continual changes of venue." She tried to be a good diplomat's wife, but, ultimately, the changing landscapes, duties and advantages of diplomatic life were outweighed by the meaningless obligations, strictures and loneliness.
While Harry was stationed in Africa, May lost their baby and was told she "would never again have a child, that the music had stopped for good." She never recovered from the loss, and the diplomatic existence increased her sense of loneliness and isolation. She would go off on her own occasionally, leaving Harry for a few days. One day, she didn't return. May was found dead in her car at the bottom of a ravine.
Harry soldiered on, eventually ending his career early and retiring to the confines of an isolated villa in Provence with a view of the sea. There, at age 84, his life again took an unexpected twist. The romantic conclusion to the novel is slightly contrived.
Ward Just has great respect for the English language, and writes with elegance and eloquence. To wit, as Harry watches a headman carrying a dying woman in his arms in a Vietnamese village Harry is inspecting, "the scene before him seemed like a relic from the century before, an eternal tableau vivant. It was as if he were witnessing an event from history, something written about in books and puzzled upon — the fall of Carthage, the construction of the Great Wall of China. Hamlet's soul."
"American Romantic" is powerful in its depiction of the American involvement in the Vietnam War, and the dichotomy between embassy life and the horrors of the jungle. He paints an illuminating portrait of Washington's State Department career machinations and the roles of the professional diplomatic community. The novel's strength lies also in the empathetic portrayal of an idealistic young man and how his life is affected by a brief love affair and an assignment willingly undertaken that becomes a personal and professional mistake.
Corinna Lothar is a Washington writer and critic.