Hawking Up Hairballs

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Ward Just

Ward Just is a middling writer. That’s not to say that he isn’t worth reading, because he is, and so far I have completed three of his novels. The one I liked best is The Weather In Berlin. It’s the story of an American filmmaker in his mid-60's who’s had a fifteen year dry spell and is convinced that he’s washed up. The book immerses the reader in the culture of the reunified Germany while relating the story of the protagonist’s attempt to come to terms with himself. An Unfinished Season is a Bildungsroman about a young man in Chicago in the 1950's. His most recent, Forgetfulness, is the story of an expatriate American painter who is living in the south of France. While on a Sunday walk in the Pyrenees, his wife is killed by four terrorists who are infiltrating across the border with Spain. As the novel goes on, the protagonist learns to get on with his life without his wife in the changed world of post-9/11.

There are two things I really like about Just’s writing. First, his plots are clever and inventive. By that I don’t mean contrived or outlandish. It’s that he utterly avoids the cliched. I’ve never gotten the feeling that I’ve read anything like one of his books before. Perhaps that’s because of his choice of subject matter. He deals with complex characters wrestling with meaningful issues. As one critic put it, and I don’t recall where I read this, so many books these days are about grown men with adolescent concerns, but not Just’s and, in that respect, they’re a welcome relief.

Another thing that Just is really good at is showing the impact of public realities on private lives. In The Weather In Berlin, it’s the fall of the Berlin wall and the reunification of Germany; in An Unfinished Season it’s the social changes being wrought in 1950's Chicago; and, in Forgetfulness it’s the effect of the events of 9/11 upon the American psyche. Many writers who attempt these kinds of novels are too heavy-handed. For example, they might explore the effects of 9/11 through a character who has lost a friend or family member in the twin towers. Not Just. He maintains a studied distance that enables him to offer a more nuanced appraisal. Even better, he manages to tell a good story character-based story at the same time.

Just’s biggest weakness as a writer is his style. He’s also been a journalist and his prose is like that of a reporter who is working under a deadline. It’s competent, but it doesn’t sing. Another way of putting it is that he’s a craftsman rather than an artist, and I can’t see him agonizing over a single sentence or word the way that many novelists do.

All in all though, it’s like I said though, he’s worth reading. Pick up the The Weather In Berlin first. I think you’ll like it.


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