The Unfinished Season, by Ward Just

This 2004 work is an unusual novel for the author. It is not about politics, not about war, not about Washington, DC. It is a coming-of-age novel, and a fine one. An excellent one. A literary one, beautifully written.

It is also a paean to Chicago and the Midwestern life.

This is the story of the teenage Wilson Raven. It begins as a family story, a story of his relationship with his distant father, an altruistic lawyer who becomes a victim of commerce when he inherits a stationery printing company. A liberal who considers himself fair to his employees, he becomes disillusioned when his employees don’t think he has been fair, and go on strike. All of which occurs in the 1950s, when Republicans ran Washington and his father’s fellow businessmen fear the big Red scare.

But this is not to be a political story, even one far from Washington. It is to be the story of 19-year-old Wils, who fills the summer before entering college with a day job as a newspaper copy boy and his nights cavorting at debutante parties given by Chicago’s high society. The heart of this novel is to be a love story, a love between Wils and Aurora, a girl he meets at one of the dances, and a girl with whom he immediately clicks in a brilliantly created (by Just) conversation.

Wils meets Aurora about one-third into the book, and just as there has been no story line in his relationship with his aloof father, or his father’s tenuous relationship with his mother, and we have been completely enthralled, so, too, even as nothing dramatic happens when he starts courting Aurora, we continue to be enthralled. This is Just in complete control of his material, as well as the technique of the novel.

Indeed, in the relationship between his father and mother, he is foreshadowing Wils’ coming relationship with Aurora. For both the women seek the adventure that back East offers, while the men see themselves as Midwesterners. Dreaming Midwesterners at that.

In the absence of drama, what makes this novel work for me is Wils’ observations about the people he meets and the Chicago life he encounters, from the debutante dances to the city room to the jazz clubs that he frequents.

Finally, the drama arises when Wils meets Aurora’s father, Jack, a famous psychiatrist, an aloof man with a mysterious past who watches with pride over his daughter. He likes Wils, and there is no immediate dramatic conflict, but an adversarial relationship between his daughter and his mistress Consuela suggests the inevitable confrontation that will change Wil’s life.

But before that confrontation there is a wonderful section two-thirds into the novel, when, without Aurora, Wila spends a day alone in Chicago. Again, nothing happens, but it is beautiful writing. Its purpose seems to be to reflect the title of this novel that has an ending but no conclusion, which is why it is Wil’s “unfinished season.”

It is Wils’ last day at the newspaper, and he has a wonderful conversation with his boss, in which his boss says he will never make a good reporter because he loves the mystery, the romance of an event, especially when it is inconclusive. He cites Wils’ fascination with a women who was found frozen, who was revived, and who then disappeared. Whereas a good reporter, he says, digs until he finds the facts and comes up with a conclusive ending. In fact, as we finish this novel we realize the inconclusiveness to Wils’ love story is again being foreshadowed here.

Then Wils kills an afternoon at the Chicago Art Institute, where he is entranced by the Impressionists and how their style suggests the lives behind the characters being portrayed. Whereas, the works of Edward Hopper are hard-edged, with anonymous figures filled with melancholy, and no suggestion of what waits them beyond the picture frame. It is, again, a metaphor for the “unfinished season” Wils is about to endure.

In the final scene of that afternoon, there is a finely drawn wake, and then the book’s only dramatic flare-up. Which changes Wils’ life and leads to a deeper inconclusiveness. And yet we as readers do not feel cheated. There is a completeness here, not least because Wils accepts what has happened, is not resentful, realizes it is part of entering manhood. And also because the author brings together two adversaries, has them holding hands, has them also accepting the ending of their relationship.

Just concludes his novel with a scene set 40 years later, a technique many authors use to reveal the final fate of their characters. I often dislike those chapters; they become a cop-out. But not here. In part because this final chapter is beautifully written, and in part because it brings contentment to two lives but no clear answers about what caused Wils’ life to change.

Ron Charles’ review does not accept the narrative. “The moment you stop reading,” he writes, “the spell breaks and you’re left with the aftertaste of pretentious thought.” He cites “slippery comment from this maddening narrator, who oozes earnest sincerity and weighty import.” He cites a “most treacherous of friends (and narrators), the humble, self-effacing observer who wants only to witness and understand the challenges other people face.”

Which is precisely why I loved this novel. I identify with this sensitive boy who does not understand himself or the world he inhabits. Whereas Charles does not. Which suggests that what the reader brings to the novel, his life experience, can determine the novel’s effect on him. What I do find, as consolation, is Charles’ summing up: “If you fall in love with that voice, as the author did, The Unfinished Season is a moving and beautiful reminiscence of a time of great change.” And fall in love I did.

To sum up, this is a wonderful change of pace for Ward Just. He was clearly writing out of his love for the Midwest, and yet is aware that that love often cannot be reconciled with the dreams, the ambitions, of the loved one. He is also writing about the romance of youth, when all seems possible, when endings are not needed. And yet the voice of one writing 40 years later frames this story with reality, with the realization that this was the story of the youth he no longer is. (May, 2014)

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