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“A doggedly restrained character study that advances its themes obliquely through atmosphere and tone. Often, the effect is quietly, even elegiacally beautiful, evoking the rhythms of Ernest Hemingway’s early fiction . . . A quietly affecting, mournful achievement.” — Richmond Times-Dispatch Ned Ayres has never wanted anything but a newspaper career. His defining moment comes early, when Ned is city editor of his hometown paper. One of his beat reporters fields a tip: William Grant, the town haberdasher, married to the bank president’s daughter and the father of two children, once served six years in Joliet. The story runs—Ned offers no resistance to his publisher’s argument that the public has a right to know. The consequences, swift and shocking, haunt him throughout a long career until eventually, as the editor of a major newspaper in post-Kennedy-era Washington, DC, Ned has reason to return to the question of privacy and its many violations—the gorgeously limned themes running through Ward Just’s elegiac and masterly new novel. “In Just’s hands, the ambiguous motives behind the paper’s pursuit of the story are riveting . . . The novel stands on Just’s memorable study of Ned. Your heart goes out to this kindly, complex man who’s ‘not truly interested in the things of his own life, preferring the lives of others.’” — Seattle Times Praise for American Romantic “If Ward Just were a painter, he might be a figurative artist like Stone Roberts, whose Old Masterly polish gives his contemporary images a spooky resonance. American Romantic, Mr. Just’s eighteenth novel over four decades, is an excursion into the near past—this time, the early days of the war in Vietnam—that leads to wise and elegiac recognition of the fading of American confidence and competence in ordering an unruly world.” — Wall Street JournalPraise for Ward Just “A master American novelist.” — Vanity Fair “[Just’s] vision of the people who run the world on our behalf is, for all their conventionality, the most profoundly subtle and, in its insight, the most radical.” — Los Angeles Times Book Review “There comes a moment . . . when a reader is brought up short by how spectacularly well Ward Just writes fiction . . . Its effect is nearly explosive.” — Boston Globe “Masterpieces of balance, focus, and hidden order . . . his stories put him in the category reserved for writers who work far beyond the fashions of the times.” — Chicago Tribune
|Publisher:||Houghton Mifflin Harcourt|
|Product dimensions:||5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.60(d)|
About the Author
WARD JUST's novels include Exiles in the Garden, Forgetfulness, the National Book Award finalist Echo House, A Dangerous Friend, winner of the Cooper Prize for fiction from the Society of American Historians, and An Unfinished Season, winner of the Chicago Tribune Heartland Award and a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize.
Read an Excerpt
UNCLE RALPH LIVED in the nursing home on the southern side of town, a solitary building on a low hill, low-slung, horizontal. It was built in 1912, the architect a disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright, the cost raised by subscription and a modest rise in property taxes. Everyone agreed it was a fine facility. The staff consisted of one doctor and three capable nurses, more than adequate to care for the twenty-two residents, ten men and twelve women, all but one in their seventies and eighties. Uncle Ralph was fifty-two. He occupied a small room on the second floor with a distant view of the Daggett River and the nine-hole golf course beyond. Everett Nursing Home was run loosely. Family and friends could visit anytime they wanted between ten a.m. and eight p.m. Two of the men and four women were senile and did not leave their rooms. Uncle Ralph was known as the Sergeant because he was a veteran of the Great War, a survivor of the Western Front. His memory was phenomenal, story after story tumbling from it in a husky baritone. Everyone knew that among his many wounds was a slice of shrapnel to the throat. Uncle Ralph was fond of standing at the window of his room and remarking that the golf course's sand traps reminded him of the craters left by artillery bombardments in the war, except the craters were much deeper, eight, ten feet in places, whereas the sand traps were shallow. Also, there were fewer sand traps than craters. Still, when he looked at the sand traps he thought of bomb craters. The foursomes on the golf course reminded him of infantry. Nine irons became Mausers, and billed caps the heavy iron helmets of the German army.
Uncle Ralph's Saturday-afternoon audience was his nephew Ned Ayres, little Neddy, a bright and inquisitive boy who never seemed to tire of his uncle's war stories. Listen carefully, Uncle Ralph would say in his husky voice. This was July 1918. We were closing on Ludendorff's forty divisions. We moved out at dawn from Meaux and marched east to Trilport. From Trilport to Changis and Favant and Nogen and Charly and, at last, Château-Thierry. They were just little French villages, some of them deserted or mostly deserted. The weather was warm and our boots kicked up a storm of dust from the roads, French dust. We don't have dust like that here in Indiana. The dust was frightful. Choking dust. You could suffocate from it and when the dust got bad enough you put on your gas mask. You were unable to get away from it, damned dust. In your hair and eyes and your boots and your — and here Uncle Ralph glanced at Neddy, pausing fractionally — crotch. It was in your ears and under your fingernails. It blotted out the sky, you see, and that was a good thing because the Hun air force was about, deadly bastards. God, they were vicious. Later that day we had a soft rain that put down the dust even though it remained in your pockets and eyelids. Never seen anything like it here in Indiana. I don't know how they managed to live there day by day, the French peasant class. Filthy stuff, dust.
Ugh, Neddy said, glancing furtively at his uncle, whose voice had risen as if he were on a parade ground. Uncle Ralph was shaped like a barrel, short of stature, entirely bald with scars here and there on his head and arms. He wore thick-lensed wire spectacles and heavy workman's shoes. His hands were dainty, unlike the rest of him. His light blue eyes were mere slits behind the spectacles and his eyelids. Now he coughed twice, a kind of lumbar whistle.
Château-Thierry was the objective. The front line. Beyond it was Ludendorff in person. The crown prince — Kronprinz — was there somewhere too. Forty divisions spread over a hundred miles, a killing ground all right. Uncle Ralph paused there, collecting himself, his eyes half shut as if he were struggling for something, a name or a face, some fugitive emotion or buried memory. And then he smiled. Rubbed his hands together and leaned close to Neddy. He said, This is confidential. Between us. I'm going to tell you a secret, the way things were back then.
We saw the Hun from a distance. They came from the forest into twilight. Wolves were among them, mangy creatures, undisciplined, furtive in the shadows. And then the wolves vanished and the German infantry was in our midst. They were big men, most of them bearded. They had had a bad time of it, you could see that. They were weary. And they carried gifts, candy bars and chocolate bears, bunches of flowers. They looked half starved but they couldn't've been friendlier. Some of them spoke English. Only a few were armed, their Mausers slung over their shoulders, barrels down. Up close they were not fearsome. They were playful as children, these German boys, asking questions and not always waiting for answers. Why, they stayed with us an hour or more. Of course we had come to a halt. The light rain continued to fall as the sky darkened. We were still miles from Château-Thierry but no one seemed to mind. They began slowly to drift away, our German enemy. They disappeared into the rain one by one. The colonel commanding removed his shako and gave us a friendly wave. Auf Wiedersehen. He was a fine-looking officer, at ease on his horse. Darkness continued to fall until at last there was only us Americans. Our expeditionary force. We were alone. The ground around us was littered with candy wrappers and flower petals. You know, Neddy, there's goodness in everyone. The goodness must be sought out and accepted when you find it. Often it's buried deep, depending on the situation, the time of day and so forth. The challenge. So, we set off with light hearts. Our morale was good. We marched on and didn't reach Château-Thierry until well after midnight. Gosh, we were bushed. We'd had it by then, don't you see. At dawn the guns began to fire and we marched off in the direction of the guns.
Uncle Ralph stopped there and lit a cigarette, his fingers trembling.
At a sudden noise behind him, Neddy turned. His father was in the doorway.
Hi Neddy, hi Ralph.
Eric, Ralph said.
I've heard the most wonderful story, Neddy said.
You're lucky, his father said. Your Uncle Ralph has a million of them.
I'm tired, Ralph said.
No wonder, Eric said.
What do you mean by that?
It's tiring, telling stories, don't you think?
I suppose, Ralph said.
Eric Ayres looked at his watch. Is there anything you need?
I want to take a nap, Ralph said.
Well, Eric said. Next Saturday, then.
Neddy was on his feet, his hand on his uncle's shoulder. Ralph did not respond, his eyes half shut once again. Neddy knew he was in another place, not here, somewhere private. He knew from past experience that his uncle would not speak again. He looked up at his father, so lean and tall. It was hard to believe he was Ralph's brother. Hard to believe they were members of the same family, born only five years apart but Ralph looked years older. Ralph, seated, was bunched up like a fist, his only movement the hand that held his cigarette, back and forth from his mouth to the ashtray on the floor. Neddy was reminded of a musician's metronome. No one spoke in the gathering silence, something unresolved. Neddy understood that it was up to him to put things right.
Bye, Uncle Ralph. Thanks for the story.
So long, Ralph, his father said.
Ralph Ayres nodded. Neddy thought he saw a smile or the beginnings of a smile, anyhow something forgiving. Uncle Ralph was a fine man. He had been everywhere, in the war and later on. He was experienced. He had seen the German army up close, and other things in Europe and America. He had even been to the West Coast, lived there for a time until his ill health intervened and he returned home to Indiana and the Everett, where he was so well liked because of his kindly disposition.
Neddy and his father were quiet during the ride home. Then Neddy told him of the dust of French roads and the unexpected meeting with the German soldiers, the candy bars and chocolate bears and the rest. Flowers. The sound of artillery, the long march to — and he could not remember the name of the French city.
Château-Thierry, his father said.
Yes, that's the one. The objective.
His father cleared his throat. He said, I've mentioned this before. You mustn't take Ralph's stories to heart. That's all they are, stories.
I know, Neddy said.
But you don't believe me, his father said.
I do. But I love them all the same.
I mean, the stories are not true.
But they're wonderful, Neddy said. The German army. The French dust. The chocolate bears and candy bars.
Neddy, how old are you?
Eight going on nine.
Old enough to know the difference.
But Uncle Ralph was there. He saw it.
He saw something, all right. But they weren't candy bars.
How do you know? Were you there?
No, Eric Ayres said. I wasn't there. And I don't care for that tone of voice.
It's all right.
Neddy turned to look out the window at the nursing home receding far behind them. The dying sun cast a light that set the windows ablaze. For a moment the boy was reminded of the German artillery. He watched the nursing home disappear as they turned onto Benjamin Franklin Boulevard. He looked at his father, relaxed behind the wheel of his Buick.
Why would Uncle Ralph tell a story that wasn't true?
Well, he believes it.
He believes something that's not true?
He's made it up in his mind, son. To him his stories are true, as if his war happened yesterday. He's never gotten free of it. Ralph does not live in present time. When Neddy looked at him doubtfully, his father tried to explain. I think I've used the wrong word, son. Uncle Ralph's stories are not factual.
Huh, Neddy said.
That's cleared it up for you, right? His father was smiling.
Do you like Uncle Ralph?
Certainly I do. He's my brother.
I love Uncle Ralph, the boy said.
Eric Ayres was silent a moment, thinking of his brother, five years older, broken in mind and spirit. A hand grenade had seen to that. From time to time he had to be restrained, administered tranquilizers, watched around the clock. Saturday was always his best day. Nothing could be done about Ralph. Neddy's visits meant everything to him. Eric wished his boy was not quite so understanding. Eric Ayres released a long sigh. He was a circuit judge known for his probity on the bench. With the probity came a certain acerbity. His dry wit was especially helpful. He despised sloppy preparation, meaning windy arguments. The only levity in his courtroom was his own, the dry wit. Eric Ayres was a deacon in the Presbyterian church and valued rectitude. He believed in facts. He believed in a stern God and saw himself as a fireman directing his hose at the mendacious and the ignorant, the ten-percenters and their hangers-on. The illusionists.
Can I go next Saturday?
Of course you can, his father said.
I want to bring Uncle Ralph a present.
What a good idea. We'll go to Grant's, buy him a necktie. How's that?
That's good, Neddy said. And I can listen to the stories?
Most of all listen to the stories.
It's all right, then?
Yes, it's all right.
I don't have to believe them, Neddy said.
Believe them if you want to, his father said. But remember, they are not factual.CHAPTER 2
THE NEIGHBORHOOD was ordinary enough, houses of brick, houses of stucco, a few houses of stone, one house of clapboard built in the previous century and now derelict, an eyesore. Across Grove Street from the Ayreses' place was a park with a baseball diamond and two tennis courts bounded by a concrete curb. When winter came the courts were flooded to make an ice-skating rink. Grove Street was shadowed by giant chestnut trees, the sidewalk littered with shiny chestnuts. The iceman in his one-horse wagon came on Thursdays, the mailman twice a day, every day except Saturday. The Wednesday mail brought Life magazine with its photographs of the outside world, the Alhambra, a grizzly bear in Alaska, the Sphinx, a sidewalk café on the Champs-Élysées in Paris, France, everyone smiling for the camera. La Belle France free, liberated at last. Of course these places were out of reach, photographs in a magazine, life elsewhere. They might have been on Mars — and by the way, there was also a brilliant photograph of the crowded galaxy, Mars in there somewhere, theoretically. Supposedly. And how could you know for certain? There were many galaxies and this could be the wrong one. Young Ned Ayres asked the iceman about it but the iceman didn't know. I deliver ice, kid. Ask your old man. And when young Ned did, his father pointed at the shelf containing The World Book Encyclopedia and said, Look it up. But the encyclopedia was no help in deciphering the photograph in Life magazine. Probably in New York City they would know the answer. His father often referred to New York as a city filled with know-it-alls. The mysteries of the galaxies would have to wait awhile. It seemed to Ned that everything outside the town was a mystery.
The town was called Herman, situated in Indiana, cut from plain cloth, some farming of soybeans and corn, a pencil factory at the spur of the rail line, silos beyond. The Daggett River cut through the center of town, then meandered away, diminishing as it approached the Ohio, well downstate. A peaceable town, anyone would agree, with the usual rural amenities. A stone pile on Benjamin Franklin Boulevard with a neon sign in the front window: Elks Club. Two gas stations, one at the north end of town, the other at the south. Winters were snowy and the days unnaturally short, but summer afternoons seemed to go on forever, the air soft as a hummingbird's trill, a breeze so light you could hold it in your fingers. Such a fine climate, even considering the tornadoes that touched down, did their work, and passed on. The tornado was the price paid for the sublime summer afternoons, when things moved at a half trot. One day was much like the next, and the years — they, too, had a sameness, sledding and ice-skating in the winter, golf and baseball in the summer. A mile or so out of town to the south stood the nine-hole Daggett Golf Club, its fairways flat as pool tables but with surprising sand traps and thick stands of towering oaks and chestnut trees and of course the slow-moving river that ran — strolled, rather — diagonally through the third, sixth, and ninth fairways. The Daggett was the center of social life in Herman, the annual New Year's Eve party a particular occasion, business suits for the men, gowns for the women, paper hats, balloons, and a six-piece band from the high school. They played well, too. There was a raffle on New Year's Eve to benefit the nursing home. Ned's father, the circuit judge, was the longtime president of the club.
Like so many small communities near and far, Herman was badly bruised by the Great Depression, not that anyone from outside — that was the phrase for strangers, those from outside — gave much notice. Why would they? Herman was isolated, and when anyone asked for its exact location they were told, Not so far from Muncie. Herman began to thrive again during the Second World War, the pencil factory running three shifts a day, the farmers selling anything they could grow. The town reached its apex of prosperity in the late 1950s, and then it commenced a long, slow decline. The population of the town grew older as young people moved away, many of them to the assembly lines of Detroit. The pencil factory was sold, and sold again, and finally shut its doors. Marshall's department store was next to go, followed by the Buick dealership. Kresge's five-and-dime went away and William Grant Haberdashery — well, the less said about that, the better. The Congregational church across the street from the courthouse burned to the ground, with arson suspected but never proved, and in what seemed no time at all Benjamin Franklin Boulevard was a ghost zone. Most poignant to Ned was the early retirement of Mrs. Lindsay, the piano teacher. It seemed to him, on his frequent visits home, that an entire culture was in ruins — and Herman was a fine place to grow up in, its parks and stately trees and the slow-flowing Daggett giving a kind of civic reassurance. The schools were good. Crime was negligible. People looked after their neighbors. If you were able to accommodate yourself to listless rhythms, you could build a decent life in Herman and hand that life down to your children and grandchildren.
But the distance between listless and exhausted was short, and when Ned learned that the weekly newspaper had failed, its mighty Goss presses sold for scrap — well, that closed the door. Ned had grown up on the Press-Gazette, from summer reporter to managing editor, all before he was twenty years old, when he ran away to the morning paper in cosmopolitan Indianapolis. The struggle with his father was titanic. First, Ned had refused to enroll in college; next, he proposed a career in journalism. Judge Ayres was enraged; he had seen newspaper reporters go about their work and was not impressed. They were downside men. He thought them cynical, and the cynicism was unearned. Reporting was a convenient way of avoiding civic responsibility. Much more convenient to write about a problem than actually devise a solution. They led disheveled personal lives. The judge called them cavemen, preferring to write about shadows on the wall than what was in front of their own eyes. They were hell-raisers and drinkers, and the idea that his son, so bright, such a nice boy, would choose that business was — appalling, and worst of all his wife, Olive, saw nothing wrong with it.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Eastern Shore"
Copyright © 2016 Ward Just.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
The Golden Table,
Sample Chapter from AMERICAN ROMANTIC,
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