As much as I loved Persephone Reading Week, I must admit that by the end of it I was really craving a little testosterone. And as Anglophile as my reading tastes may be, I was also in the mood for something a little closer to home. In Ward Just I found the perfect antithesis to my week of reading all things Persephone. Once a reporter for the Washington Post, Just writes brilliant fiction centering in one way or another on politics and power. Sometimes his characters are actually politicians; sometimes they are the power or the brains behind the politician. Or sometimes they are the “fixers” out there who often clandestinely and unofficially shape politics, foreign policy, and even the contours of armed conflict.
Honor, Power, Riches, Fame and the Love of Women is a collection of short fiction written by Just in the 1970s that includes two novella and four thematically related short stories. The title novella is about a Hill staffer who marries the boss’ daughter and ends up as his Congressman-father-in-law’s successor in the House of Representatives. But his ascent into power is, in many ways, just background for his personal battle between his loves and his ambitions.
Three of the four short stories deal with the experience of journalists making their living in war torn Indochina, while the fourth is a spy story of sorts. The final novella called Cease-fire tells the story of a man whose job is to work behind the scenes to help keep fragile cease-fires in place. But it also follows him into an unexpected and uncharacteristic love affair that changes his world.
In all of these short works, and indeed in all of his novels, Ward Just describes worlds that can be at once totally shocking and surprising to those of us not in the often messy corridors of power, but also so mundane in the day-to-day details that it all seems incredibly realistic and plausible. And I suppose cynical. There is never anything in his work that seems over the top or too Hollywood. These aren’t shoot ‘em up kind of books.
Just is one of those writers who does what he does so well that my limited descriptive abilities don’t begin to do him justice. Let me just crib what librarian extraordinaire Nancy Pearl has to say about him, after all she was the one who turned me onto Just in the first place.
Too few readers of fiction know the novels of Ward Just, which is a real shame, since he is a master craftsman, unafraid to tackle deep and difficult topics. In many ways he seems to be the American Graham Greene, concerned always with the morality of human behavior. His novels are thoughtful, beautifully written, and often bleak bleak bleak. I sometimes think that Just never met a happy ending he liked.