Ward Just knows his way around a novel--18 of them now, including finalists for both a Pulitzer (An Unfinished Season) and a National Book Award (Echo House). He also knows his way around the world--Washington, Paris, Berlin, Saigon, Chicago, even suburban Connecticut. His characters are cosmopolitan: they drink and smoke, they read books and listen to classical music, they fall in love (often more than once) but their sex is discreet. Just's new novel, American Romantic, is no exception. It follows the life of Harry Sanders, who works his way through government pay grades: a midlevel embassy diplomat in prewar Saigon; then ambassador assignments in a half dozen embassies in central Africa, the Balkans and Scandinavia; and, finally, a comfortable retirement in the south of France. He has an intense love affair with Sieglinde, a German medical aide in Saigon; permanently scars his feet in a covert Vietnam intelligence-gathering mission; marries May, a beguiling daughter of a hardscrabble Vermont family; and visits his politically well-connected centenarian father in Connecticut as best he can.
In short, Harry is a career government servant, albeit one whose path touches the world's high and mighty as well as its weak and helpless. The orphaned and disillusioned Sieglinde describes young Harry in his Vietnam role as an "American romantic... you love the war," while he more soberly sees himself as "a witness to events I didn't understand and would never understand." To May, who accompanied him in his 40-year career, "Harry was cheerful, an optimist, good-humored and determined to make the best of things." In the retired Harry's own reminiscences, his years of service had put him in "the world itself, its enmities and alliances, its instability and bother, its evident danger."
The title of Just's extraordinary 1979 short story collection Honor, Power, Riches, Fame, and the Love of Women might as easily apply to his new novel--perhaps to all his fiction. His work explores the fragile connections between the personal and the professional, the role of fate in affairs of State and the burden of living a meaningful life with some measure of personal contentment. Toward the end of his long life, Harry concludes: "Things did not proceed according to plan. Mistakes, errors of judgment, bad luck. Chance always played a role. Chance married to unreasonable expectations, a lethal combination." Chance, in fact, brings the novel to its unexpected end as reliable, romantic, reflective Harry--like Ward Just--soldiers on.
This review first appeared in Shelf Awarness.