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Tom Chaney. No. R770: An elegant stylist - politics as balance

Of Writers and Their Books No. R770: An elegant stylist -- politics as balance First appeared 8 July 2007 in the Hart County Herald News.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column :Tom Chaney: Oral History - behind the scene - Ed Prichard

By Tom Chaney

An elegant stylist - politics as balance

One of the delights of living all day in a bookstore is that one is always discovering new writers who may have been there all along.

A couple of weeks ago I discovered Ward Just. His name was vaguely familiar, but I had never opened one of his books.

My eyes lit on his Jack Gance [1988 Houghton Mifflin Co.]. Thunk me, "It's time to try him out." And try him I did to my great pleasure. Washington novels these days have to do with national danger, lofty sentiments passing for patriotism, car chases, and close calls for O-So-Human Presidents. Just provides a refreshing change.

The New York Times calls him "The Washington novelist's novelist." I do not presume to know the taste of those folks, but if the statement is not true, it ought to be. The derring-do in most novels of the capital could do with some of Just's elegance.

Just was a war correspondent during Vietnam where he was wounded -- taking more than thirty pieces of shrapnel. Here is how Peter Kadis of the Boston Phoenix describes Just's behavior.

"[H]e declined to be evacuated until the dozens of enlisted men wounded in the action were airlifted out. An act of courage, without doubt. But I wonder if it might not have been something simpler, more elegant: an exhibition, perhaps, of good manners."

Jack Gance, the title character, is enamored with politics from his Chicago beginnings. He begins as a poll taker and strategist with the Chicago machine. From there he goes to Washington as a White House staffer and finally becomes a Senator from Illinois.

Reviewing the novel for the New York Times, Judith Martin, who as Miss Manners is the epitome of elegant behavior, acknowledges Just's literary skill with the example of just one sentence which "suffices to show the impact on a hitherto unexceptionable family of the public scandal that results when Gance's father is jailed for tax evasion:
" 'At breakfast we read about the previous day's testimony on the front page of the Tribune, long gray columns of quote and counterquote -- the Trib was our Izvestia, and how strange now to find it belligerent; was this how a newspaper repaid a subscriber's loyalty?' "
It would be easy to criticize Gance for his unsavory ties to Chicago, for his love affairs with married women, his political deals. However, as Martin observes "one sees a man without malice or inflated ego trying to do his duty to people and institutions but finding it all tremendously complicated."

In the last scene of the novel, Gance is talking to a delegation of Chicago prep students about a career of public service where "the essence of public life was compromise. . . . It was exquisite, the give-and-take making a beautiful balance. . . . In the Senate as in life you yielded, conceding ground; and your opponent did likewise and from that struggle came something durable and true-speaking." A ballet of balance which current politicians might well emulate.

I just passed a good place to stop when I recalled Gance's analysis of his bachelor affairs with married women. "Arrangements were easily made and unmade, and I came to see married life from an unnatural angle of vision. I was an expert navigator who had interviewed all the best mariners but who had never been to sea, who knew about life topside and below decks, had heard the descriptions of the calms and the tempests but had never felt the deck below his own feet."

I have found Ward Just -- a calm and elegant novelist amidst the swirling tempests of Washington writers from Margaret Truman to Tom Clancy to Jack Higgins and a dozen more of my favorites. I just want more Just.

Box 73/111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2012-07-08 05:08:41
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