This 1989 work is an ambitious novel that doesn’t quite come off. It is too episodic as it portrays the world of politics. It is most effective when its hero Jack Gance is young and naïve, and discovering the mysterious, hidden compromises behind the conflicts in Chicago politics. He also discovers the road his own life will take, when the Chicago machine hires him as a political pollster and he becomes fascinated by the power and intrigue in a world he never knew existed.
Like many youth in politics, Jack starts out as an idealist. The idea of polling appeals to him because in the Kennedy era ”hope, not fear, animated America at that time; and a campaign needed a narrative as much as a movie did, and for the same reasons.” And, in an apt metaphor, the human political reactions that polling reveals creates the novel’s narrative—that is, Jack’s rise in the political ranks. Ward here introduces the moral richness that lies deep within that political life. Indeed, as Judith Martin summarizes in her New York Times review, this novel “is about the difficulty of weighing loyalties, strategies, and principles in the not-always-successful attempt to achieve an accommodation of conflicting demands in public and private life.”
Jack also has a personal life that makes us interested in these career decisions. His parents are not happy with those decisions, particularly his father, a worldly man who tries to teach him about political life but then mysteriously lets himself be a fall guy. The IRS sends to prison for a crime neither Jack nor the reader understands. The only explanation is that his father has stood for a certain uncompromising standard that Jack himself cannot relate to. And this will later be contrasted with the compromises that Jack himself makes with E.L. Mozart, a Chicago lawyer deep inside the Chicago political machine.
Jack’s personal life also includes two affairs, one a true love affair and one a merely physical affair with a married women, Carole Nierendorf, when she is ignored by an ambitious husband also in the political world. Her presence seems intended to underscore Jack’s commitment to politics rather than to any personal life. He also somewhat falls into this affair on a rebound from the serious affair, which is with a refugee student, Katrina Lauren, who carries to Chicago the scars she endured in Berlin during World War II.
Except for these two women and his mother, the daily lives and career decisions of all the characters early in Jack’s career revolve around the world of Chicago politics. And, indeed, it is a valid presentation of Chicago and that world. Martin, however, suggests in her review that Jack is portrayed at a deeper level: “One sees a man without malice or inflated ego trying to do his duty to people and institutions but finding it all immensely complicated.” But for me the result is too arbitrary a portrait, because of the novel’s short length.
What I mean is that after the learning experiences of Jack’s youth, the author jumps ahead from career step to career step, without detailing for the reader how one step led to the next. Jack has simply moved up—to the White House as an aide to the president, then back in Chicago running for the U.S. Senate. It is as if Just has wanted to describe two worlds, that of Chicago politics and that of national politics, and the compromises that are required to take each step. But until the final approach to Jack by lawyer Mozart on a Chicago golf course, Just offers no connection in terms of those steps. He simply leaps ahead to a new decade, letting the reader fill in the gaps. As if he did not want to double the length of this novel in order to spell out what often takes a lifetime in politics to achieve.
Instead, his primary connection is more thematic. Thus, he introduces a conversation much earlier in the book in which Jack’s mentor, Professor Karcher, a Jewish refugee, tries to awaken Jack from what he calls the innocent hypocrisy of their university. He wants Jack to get out and discover the realities of real-world politics, and recommends a first step, which Jack takes. “City Hall is your graduate school,” he says. “That’s where the fieldwork is.” Which we are intended to recall, as we review the final practical decisions Jack needs to make to advance his career.
Finally, Just ends with a chapter whose idealism offers an ironic contrast to the corruption and deal-making that Jack bought into in order to achieve his final success. That Washington and national politics does work, he says, because of compromise and the art of dealing. But it too obvious an irony, underlining too strongly for me the author’s message that real politics does not preclude the ambition, selfishness, and aggression of political human beings.
Christopher Lehman-Haupt disputes that irony is suggested by this ending, saying that Jack’s words “seem more wise than ironic….He has accepted his figurative castration. He reflects the truth of recent American history.” But this final scene does not work for me because of the obviousness of the message, which is given to a visiting group of receptive, naïve high school students. While their bored teachers, who represent the standard disbelief in politics, respond with yawns.
Most of the individual scenes of this novel do work however. They cover Jack’s visit to a summer lake with his family, the dissolution of his casual affair, deal-making in Chicago restaurants, trading news with a Washington columnist, a phone conversation while looking into the Rose Garden, or making a career decision on a golf course. Author Just captures the atmosphere in each case, and, more significantly, what is not being said directly but which is nevertheless being communicated.
I am ready to read more Just novels, despite my disappointment here. He is one of the few novelist willing and able to portray the world of politics, with all its conflicts, its ironies, its moral issues, and its human ramifications. (October, 2016)