Echo House, by Ward Just

I have long been a fan of Ward Just. Not least because he often writes about Washington, about the government, politics, and the people who serve in that interesting world. In this novel, it is the Behls, a truly insider family, who lead the reader through a complex behind-the-scenes view of how Washington works.

We meet first Senator Adolph Behl, who anticipates being nominated as a vice-presidential candidate, and feels betrayed when he is not. Then we encounter his son, Alex, a military hero in World War II after he parachutes into occupied France to help the underground and is later co-opted by Patton’s army and severely injured. He recovers to become a power broker in Washington, but patriotism ignites a moral fervor that becomes corrupted by arrogance. With both these stories bringing one to the edge of history, one anticipates a powerful novel.

Then onto the scene arrives grandson Alec Behl, a lawyer who also works behind the scenes and who becomes the main character in the book. The game of politics also subverts him, as codes of duty and loyalty are sacrificed as the cost of doing business. Like his grandfather and father, Alec lives in the family home, Echo House, a mansion overlooking Rock Creek Park just outside downtown Washington. The novel’s many scenes in that house, including the first with Adolph and the last, a birthday party with Alex and Alec, serve also to support the work’s unity.

The main problem with this novel is that as it moves into Alec’s longer story, it tries to portray too much, presenting two dozen characters in the foreground. Initially, Alex’ generation acts to achieve either good or power, but then son Alec’s generation, in addition to their own political plotting, resorts to commenting on the activities of their predecessors. While in the background looms the context of most of 20th century history, such as the New Deal, World War II, the Cold War, JFK, the Vietnam War, and then Nixon and Reagan. An accompanying problem is that as many of the two dozen characters age in the second half of the novel, and as they lose power, they become observers more than power brokers. As a result, they both comment on the action, rather than influence it, and are subjects, as I said, of comment by the younger generation—all of which inhibits the novel’s momentum, even as it enriches the Washington scene.

Just captures this lost power very well, and through these men and women offers interesting commentary about the ambitions and the foibles of the past. But the novel, as I said, loses the drive it once had. For the real action occurs offstage, and the reader is no longer a witness. Moreover, the personal lives of two of the Behls, their loves and their failed marriages, offer no substitute. Perhaps this is because of the women they meet, Sylvia and Leila, the wives of Alex and Alec. They seem as interesting to us on being introduced, as they do to father and son, but they do not become part of their husbands’ involvement in the Washington scene, or even, as their marriages collapse, let us see the emotional side of these Behls, father and son.

The novel’s other failure is its ending. It features a highly dramatic birthday celebration, with an unnamed President attending. But the event becomes merely a dramatic scene that substitutes for an ending. Instead, the novel needed to bring closure to a story line, for example an issue that Alec is facing. But Alex’ friends are out of power, and there is no major issue that his son Alec has inherited or is facing.

What the novel has going for it is that extended portrait of Washington life. We meet lawyers and bankers, senators and staff, journalists and adventuresses, diplomats and spies. They are young and old, male and female, honest and dishonest. And they all bring reality to this portrait. They all discuss what is happening behind the scenes in the political world the general public never sees. They comment on how power is used, how reputations are destroyed, how people are manipulated, how image is paramount. But, as David McCullough says in his New York Times review, their comments reflect a disconnect: “The new generation sees their predecessors—the Venerables, Mr. Just calls them—only as a tedious reproach, while the Venerables see the new people as self-absorbed money grubbers. The generations face each other, immobilized, across a great gulf.”

What does re-enforce the truth of these Washington conversations is the actual historic environment that these fictional characters are dealing with. There is no encounter between Just’s fictional characters and actual historic characters—except for the brief presence of Adlai Stevenson early on. But Just’s characters do convey the atmospherics of the FDR, McCarthy, Kennedy, and Nixon eras.

There are, fortunately, no fictional characters here who seem to stand in for actual historic figures. These characters have their own lives. If only, by the third generation, they had become more interesting. If only we had known more about not only their marriages but also their failures or accomplishments as power brokers. If only there had been less insider conversation and more action. We were there in the room when Adolph anticipated his nomination, and on the ground in France when Alex encountered the results of a massacre. But the manipulations and power moves in Washington are commented on rather than dramatized.

Just as the President joins in honoring Alex Behl at his birthday party, but does not know what Behl has actually achieved on the Washington scene, so the reader feels he must honor this portrait of Washington even though he does not really experience it from within. He hears the talk, and it is convincing, but he does not see the action. This reads like a work by an author who has heard all the conversations, all the gossip, of his fellow observers, but has not been in the rooms when actual power was exercised. Which describes the limits that even an esteemed journalist must work under.

Yes, I shall read more Just. But I enjoy his novels more when he takes me inside his characters, inside journalists, for example, rather than uses his characters to explore and comment on a world in which he is more an observer than a participant. (March, 2018)

The Ninth Hour, by Alice McDermott

This tender novel works on two levels. It is the story of a Catholic family, of mother Annie and daughter Sally, as they each seek happiness after the loss of husband and father. It is also the story of an order of Catholic nuns, featuring Sister Lucy and Sister Jeanne as they take over from the elderly Sister St. Saviour. And within both stories is an awareness of death, along with a striving for happiness in one’s life.

The emotions that carry this novel belong to the family story, as wife and daughter seek to overcome the disgrace of a suicide. The richness that fills this novel comes from the spiritual life of the nuns, and the sacrifices they make to care for others. These literary qualities join when both the family and the nuns confront death as the inevitable human destiny.

And yet the telling of these two stories does lack cohesion. The action does not flow from one chapter into the next. Instead, each chapter isolates a separate stage in the family story. After a harrowing opening scene of suicide, the narrative settles on the funeral arrangements, with the issue of whether a suicide can be buried in hallowed ground and the reaction of these nuns who are more open-minded then doctrinaire.

Then follow separate chapters that introduce a widow’s love affair, life in the nuns’ laundry room, the pain of a sick and dying woman, then a disillusioning train ride, followed by the funeral of a figure from the past, then a return to the sick invalid. Each chapter is beautifully written, but each is self-contained and could stand on its own as a short story. (One does appear in The New Yorker.) The continuity stems from daughter Sally’s thinking: whether or not she should join these sisters whose dedication to the unfortunate she has been exposed to.

Contributing also to the lack of cohesion are interruptions in the narrative, which suggest we are being told this family story by a character who does not exist in the novel. Every so often, that is, this narrator jumps into the third person narrative, and refers to “my mother, or “my father.” And we realize that this narrator is a child of the daughter Sally. A child who, as I said, never appears. Why is this person present? What is his or her purpose? It is conceivable that Sally, as mother, may have told this figure much of her own thinking, but certainly not that of the nuns or the other characters.

The ending also may be problematic for some. It introduces a death, a death which may be natural, but there is a suggestion that it has been triggered by one of the characters. The author does not say this, but she does leave us with the strong possibility. And it is also in keeping with the human motivations of these characters. The closest the author comes to stating this is when one character talks of heaven. “Out of love, I lost it. Which sounds funny, doesn’t it. You’d think you could only lose heaven out of hate.” And later: “But you’ll pray for me, won’t you…You’ll pray for this lost soul.”

It is the presence of life’s spiritual frame of reference that provides the strength of this novel. The actions of all these characters, even of the nuns, are human actions, but there are consequences to those actions, consequences that originate in the religious convictions that govern the Irish society to which these characters belong. The primary conviction is that the meaning of human life is not limited to the physical world, but is found, more significantly, in the spiritual world. And the conflict between these two worlds is introduced from the start of the novel, when a nun and a bishop debate whether a suicide can be buried in consecrated ground. It is also reflected in the novel’s title, for the ninth hour becomes the time for both the nun’s mid-afternoon prayers and the love affair of a lonely woman.

But what lends this novel its substance is that all its nuns realize that their daily lives are circumscribed by a physical, humanistic world. And that they must adjust their spiritual decisions accordingly. Which means that they lean toward practical considerations. And lean quite far, if one woman’s confession is to be believed.

The order these nuns belong to is The Little Sisters off the Sick Poor. So the richness of the novel also stems from the lives of the poor victims that these nuns encounter. Which highlights both the physical needs the nuns fulfill and the spiritual motives that inspire them. That is, they serve both worlds. And yet there is also that tension between these worlds, illustrated when Sally rejects a spiritual vocation after being confronted by the world of reality on her train ride. As well as, later, when both she and a nun conclude that enabling love, enabling a physical affair, is justified, even though it would deny them their spiritual destiny.

It is this coexistence between the physical world and the spiritual world that characterizes much of McDermott’s work. But with this probing of the nun’s world, perhaps an inevitable extension of the Irish culture, she has raised her explorations to a new level. She has kept the family environment, with its Irish culture, and here the Irish shame of suicide, but also made a family’s spiritual considerations more tangible by introducing the nun’s worldly perspective.

If only she had offered smoother transitions between the two worlds. Had told the story through a decade or two of one generation (Sally’s), instead of through two generations, with the suggestion of a third. Had made her witness of her mother’s love affair even more central to the conflict between the two worlds. (Or would that have veered too much toward melodrama?) Because I see a richness in the many considerations that Sally was faced with, especially the wall of innocence both the nuns and her mother had built around this young girl.

Overall, this does not reach the heights of McDermott’s better novels. But I do give her credit for exploring more deeply its spiritual dimension, not always an easy assignment. (March, 2018)

Group Portrait with Lady, by Heinrich Boll

Heinrich Boll won the Nobel Prize in 1972, soon after publishing this novel in Germany. I bought this copy shortly afterwards, not least because I knew the author was Catholic, and believed he would write from a frame of reference that I was familiar with. However, on checking out other novels of his, I found them difficult to relate to. So this novel has been on my shelf for a long time.

Another reason it sat there was my understanding that it did not probe the interior of its characters, neither the psychological nor the spiritual side. But given Boll’s enduring reputation, I finally decided to give it a try.

And immediately discovered that here was quite an unusual novel, one that broke a familiar rule: show, don’t tell. For although this seemed to be a story about Leni Pfeiffer and her family and friends, we were not directly watching her or her friends as they lived through World War II in the Rhineland region of Germany. Instead, we were observing them at a distance, because their story was being told to us by an Author, who, in turn, has earlier interviewed these characters and is now relating to the reader how each of their lives had intersected with the life of Leni.

And yet, even with a major rule broken, I found myself fascinated.

As I recognized that I was in the hands of a master. Who had given this work a very appropriate title. It is indeed a portrait. In which the focus is on the group, even as it pretends to focus on Leni. That is, the novel has the feel of a documentary, as if an objective portrait of Germany during and after World War II is being conveyed through these personal narratives.

However, Richard Locke in the New York Times has cited a much grander achievement. “By going into biographical detail, Boll dramatizes the impossibility of generalizing about people, makes us feel the vast gaps that exist between political slogans and moral actualities, between those who slyly ride with the times and those who, like Leni, may lose their wealth, their family, their social position in the world, but gain their souls.”

The Author opens this work with Leni at age 48 in the 1960s. He describes her circumstances. She is indeed in debt, under threat of eviction, and her son is in jail. The Author then introduces the people who will tell her story, family and friends, co-workers and professionals, all of whom will become part of her life—especially during World War II, but also after.

But, fascinated as I was, I did not find Leni’s story that interesting. Overall, she is too passive, accepting rather than resisting her circumstances. She is far from a rebel—more a romantic focusing internally on love in order to survive. Indeed, a commentary in Kirkus Review calls this work “an elaborate dossier-type anti-novel all about a somewhat dreary heroine suffering pangs of the Zeitgeist.” On the other hand, Locke cites Leni as “a figure of beleaguered virtue shining in a world of vice, misery, destitution, a world vigorously portrayed with comedy, bitterness, sorrow and tenderness.” My only reaction: to each his own. I prefer characters who react to their fate, not a detailed portrait of the circumstances they are reacting to.

Nor did I find interesting the interactions between Leni and those she lived among—even though this novel attempted to offer a comprehensive portrait of life inside Germany during World War II, with all its contradictions, and with its citizens struggling for survival amid the madness and destructiveness of war. The Kirkus review, however, is more critical: “Leni’s school days with the nuns, Leni’s bad days with the Nazis and the Russians, Leni’s amours and marriages, Leni’s complicated adventures during the war and after the war (the reader never did get them straight), Leni’s slightly paranoid middle age—the fortunes of Leni’s life are meant, of course, to represent the dehumanizing effects of history on a free soul. But Leni’s ‘informants,’ though varied, are a toneless lot, and Leni herself a bit dim.”

What fascinated me more, that is, was not the story but the method behind Boll’s story telling, a method that slowly portrays the hard life of Leni and the sixty other characters—characters not always easy to differentiate—whom the Author interviewed because their lives intersected with her own.

And yet, of course, this story of civilian life in Germany during World War II earned its own interest. Even as some details in Leni’s life did not, such as her brief marriage with Alois, who is killed in Poland three days later, or her brief love affair with her cousin Erhart. What was much more interesting is Leni’s long affair with Boris, a Russian prisoner of war who is released to work alongside her at a local nursery. The novel’s narrative high point occurs when they conduct their affair in a cemetery vault, primarily during air raids. Such circumstances emphasize the complexity of their affair, and the emotional link between these two people drawn together despite different life experiences and separate national loyalties. And while this allows Boll to explore her friends’ mixed reactions to their affair, it does lead to an arbitrary decision by him to continue her portrait as a victim.

The World War II experiences comprise about 75 percent of the novel. The 25 percent that follows is much less interesting, even confusing at times. One reason is that it switches from personal interviews to professional reports with all their purported objectivity, all their jargon; and this jargon holds the reader at an even greater distance than do the Author’s interviews.

Much time is spent at the end telling the story of Lev, Leni’s son that she had with Boris. Lev is now in jail for forging checks in order to provide his mother with funds to pay for her home. There is little, however, about Leni herself, about her involvement with her son or her concern for his problems. There is more, in fact, about her friends’ struggles in post-war Germany. Indeed, the novel seems more interested in wrapping up the lives of these friends we have met through the Author—and providing this information through official reports that eliminate any drama—rather than bringing us back to Leni herself, and any issues she is facing in adapting to life after the war.

This complex novel and its objective approach certainly does not encourage me to look up more of the author’s work. (February, 2018)