Five years ago, I observed that American writer Ward Just was “… operating just below the radar. His steady stream of quality novels over more than 40 years put him in the running as a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Yet his work remains less read than it should, even though his name has a familiar ring to it.”
An instance: his 2009 novel, “Exiles in the Garden”, referred to a cast of characters from other countries invited for drinks to the mysterious Count and Countess D’An’s garden in Georgetown in the 1970s. They were émigrés, second-tier intellectuals, and indomitable survivors of hard times. The title has a biblical ring.
Just’s 18th novel, “American Romantic,” is about Harry Sanders, who serves as a Foreign Service Officer in 1960s Indochina. He has a disastrous meeting with a representative of the enemy in the jungle that ends with his killing a man. While in Saigon, he has an extended affair with Sieglinde Hechler, a German X-ray technician with memories of World War II, and he quietly returns to Washington before taking more assignments.
Harry feels the weight of “diplomacy and desire set against the backdrop of America’s first lost war.” In time he marries May, a girl from Vermont, in Paris. She is described by associates as “fragile.” Through it all Harry carries on a difficult life of balancing a recollected love fast becoming a memory, the love of his wife, and more overseas assignments. He is a competent diplomat with a streak of sadness. Years and decisions wear upon him; “a connoisseur of the counterfeit and the inexplicable.”
His wife has a difficult time of it, too, never really adjusting to the change of scene as a Foreign Service officer’s wife. In Africa she felt like “an ill-mannered tourist or an amateur sociologist come to inspect the culture of the natives.” There she becomes pregnant and the baby, a girl they name Josiana, dies at birth. Ward Just indicates that she has the larger heart than Harry but feels “unmoored.”
Just’s writing in “American Romantic” is so good it makes any writer jealous. An example: in the Prelude, Harry and his sergeant protector are looking for Village Number Five as their guide maneuvers a small powerboat deep into the Vietnamese jungle.
“Dead slow Harry told the helmsman, and the boat commenced to drift, carried by the invisible current. The channel narrowed again and when they swung around a lazy bend they saw two small boats disappear downriver … Harry stepped off the boat and secured the line … Harry walked alone. The dirt surround was immaculate, free of litter, not so much as a gum wrapper or cigarette stub. This was not normal.”
The English author, Graham Greene, wrote an earlier, crueler version of this story, an antiwar, anti-American novel, “The Quiet American,” in the early 1950s, later made into a couple of films. Greene derived his antagonisms from his stint serving as a war correspondent in Indochina for The Times and Le Figaro from 1951–1954.
“American Romantic” adjusts the balance of Greene’s novel, somewhat. It is Just’s attempt to explain the American impulse of trying to better the world. As a result, Harry Sanders, the protagonist, is wounded physically and morally in the upshot.
To explain: Harry has a hard time managing his life of “American in the evening on the streets of Saigon”, as against “diplomatic trickster in the daytime, at the embassy.” He had “… hoped the time would come when he could separate who he was from what he did, except that in America (and in Indochina) it was always the salient question …”
Perhaps the donated stained-glass window from Connecticut, inset at the Catholic Church, Èglise St.-Sylvestre, near Saigon’s harbor, makes things clearer. That’s where Harry attends Mass occasionally. Harry reads the words below the glass and takes them to heart. They are from Cardinal Newman, “The night is dark and I am far from home. Lead Thou me on.”
Later, thinking about Newman’s directive Harry says to Sieglinde, “I concluded that my fate was to witness events I didn’t understand and would never understand.”
Harry tries to explain to her that this is his way of interpreting an invisible hand that had shown its cards.
“Sieglinde yawned. She said, I don’t believe in invisible hands.
Harry said, “You should. You don’t know what you’re missing.”
“I think you are an American romantic, Harry.”
Take that response as par for the course, trying to explain the American psyche to someone from another country. In the meantime, Just describes America’s growing indifference to the Vietnam War back home.
For example, while Harry’s on leave, and having a long Sunday luncheon with parents and friends at their summer place near Salisbury, Conn., the author illustrates Vietnam’s irrelevance:
“One story followed another and Harry’s war was discretely put to one side. He did not blame them for their inattention, his awkward sentences summoning a house of cards built on quicksand, one fact after another and so many of them counterfeit. He felt he had let them down … his mother had begun to collect the plates – but the war fit no known precedent or pattern in American history …”
The American public’s hostility to the Vietnam War is mentioned in Harry Sanders’ career more than once. At a small college in Denver in 1969, where he meets his wife, Harry is asked to give an overview to students. He tells the crowd: “The war was misbegotten, that was the truth of it …”
Ward Just knows the territory in Washington: the seventh floor of the State Department, for example, where Harry is given a retirement dinner after his service in a number of ambassadorial jobs. It is a seductive atmosphere, “so worldly, populated with outsize personalities, figures. It was not celebrity. It was something beyond celebrity, this inside world, a kind of private club, the members’ faces recognized in Washington and nowhere else.”
Almost inadvertently, the author sums up his talent on display in “American Romantic” in a concise way. It is Harry Sanders who explains, “The bare bones of a well-told story required coherence, ironic asides and a plot as well knit and tied together as a jigsaw puzzle and somewhere in it a detail as provocative as a cat in a tree.”
Or, as Ambassador Basso Earle, Harry’s boss in Saigon puts it, “The black cat is there somewhere and now and again it’ll come for you.”
“American Romantic” is the cat’s meow as it moves to a surprise ending.
Michael D. Langan, a term senior executive service appointment at the Treasury Department, served in various government posts for almost 20 years in Washington.
By Ward Just
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
288 pages, $26