- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 8, 2009


By Ward Just

Houghton Mifflin, $25, 288 pages

Reviewed by Muriel Dobbin

Assessing and analyzing the psychological and political labyrinth of Washington requires the literary skill of a Ward Just, one of the most subtle and introspective of writers. In his latest book, he portrays Washington as a world within a world, where even those who are born here may never belong here and who consequently spend their lives in a state of ironic detachment. Men like Alec Malone, the son of a well-known senator. His father’s life is circumscribed by political development and the compromises that politics demands of those who follow that path. Alec not only resists following in the paternal footsteps, but as a news photographer, turns down an assignment to cover the Vietnam War. This puts a sly twist on the author’s own career as a war correspondent in Southeast Asia, which produced one of the best reflections to come out of that controversial conflict.

Alec’s explanation, officially, is that he has a wife and young child. Yet that rationale is not even satisfactory to himself, and he is aware that his refusal to accept what was considered a plum job in the 1960s has badly damaged his career.

“In the newspaper business, war was the jewel in the crown…. The truth was Alec had no desire for the war, and desire always came first. Without desire you were not a craftsman but a careerist.” He frequently reflects on what he calls the “seen everything faces in the newsroom.”

He is also influenced by his Swiss wife, Lucia, who throughout her years in Washington, clings to the expatriates who are her neighbors in Georgetown and who look backward wistfully to their lives in the era preceding World War II. Their relocation in Washington restored their security yet never made them feel at home. Alec comes home late to sit with a drink, looking at the roses in his garden and listen to his wife’s voice floating over the wall in the flow of continuing nostalgia for the past.

Lucia, literal-minded and often defensive, is baffled when Alec tries to explain Washington. Drawing on a childhood when his parents were a prominent part of the political scene, he offers her patient explanations.

“Most everyone in Washington is from someplace else but soon enough they switch allegiance. And they do not acknowledge this allegiance shift when they visit their former home because the residents there are outsiders. They would not understand the mystery of government. Washingtonians… feel closer to the pulse of things than other people do. Election returns come in and your neighbor finds himself without a job and the next day… you drop by for a drink and the talk is subdued because of the corpse in the parlor. Washington is a present tense city.”

When he asks if she agrees, Lucia says yes, but it’s clear she neither agrees nor understands. Their relationship exists within the bounds of politeness.

It comes as no surprise when Lucia takes a trip home to Switzerland and never comes back. And it isn’t only because she has been cheating on Alec with Nikolas Janos, a Hungarian writer whom she had met at one of the parties where she felt at home. She also is driven to exasperation by Alec’s frequent reveries in which he retreats within the intricacies of a mind she cannot understand. Only when they went sailing on their honeymoon was there a vestige of communication, and that dissolved into the banality of domesticity.

So Lucia writes from Zurich to tell Alec she had “found the man she had desired her whole life and had come to assume did not exist.” For Nikolas, she had left Alec and their daughter Mathilde in that world where she felt herself “imprisoned in a glass cage.”

Reading Lucia’s farewell letter, Alec recollects Nikolas as “a burly young man with a mop of dirty hair, a beaked nose and a heavy belly… younger in age than heedless, overwhelmed Lucia.”

His recollection of Nikolas is so vague he can’t recall when they had ever spoken to each other although he remembers the other man had written a “scandalous novel.” Alec considers how he had not anticipated the collapse of his marriage although most of their friends knew about Lucia’s infidelity. For him, life goes on in a series of political camera moments, enlivened by a relationship with a charming and shrewd actress who understands and relishes his personality.

Yet Mr. Just turns the book on its head when Lucia’s purportedly long dead father, Czech adventurer and anti-fascist commando Andre Duran, suddenly reappears as a man living out his days in Goya House, a hostel for exiles in Washington. When Lucia reappears to persuade Alec to accompany her to meet her father, he finds himself dealing with a man who is everything he is not.

“I have always looked for the absolute,” Andre Duran tells Alec. He relates a life of drama and bloodshed and terror, of more than 20 years in prison, of an existence where there was no choice about going to war because his world was vanishing before his eyes.

“War has its own rules,” he tells Alec, adding that he had “no regrets” for what he had done, although he recalled “terrible, terrible things.” Lucia listens with disapproval and in distress, apparently primarily concerned as to whether her father had given any thought to her or her mother in all the years of his absence.

Alec, on the other hand, finds himself “overcome with admiration for Duran, whose endurance seemed to him all but superhuman. He was a courageous man. … He had regret, but no shame over what he had done. He had merely obeyed war’s rules.”

Duran had lived “a twentieth century life,” Alec tells Lucia, and his former wife retorts, “A life of violence… that seems to me to have been dictated by history. I wish he had turned his back…. He does not appreciate the wreckage he left behind.”

She adds bitterly to Alec, “I think you’re envious of him. Envious of the wreckage.” He tells her that he doesn’t envy wreckage but he does admire fidelity. It is an exchange that sums up the psychological gap between the couple.

Yet the meeting with Andre Duran has a far more lasting impact on Alec than it does on Lucia, perhaps because it revives old doubts and questions that he has never been able to resolve to his own satisfaction. And in the end, he never does.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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