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)

The Cat’s Table, by Michael Ondaatje

This 2011 novel is an admirable work. Beautifully written. And it is in my wheelhouse, a tale of youth told by from the perspective of a mature mind years later. In this case, it is the tale of a sea voyage taken by an 11-year-old boy, Michael, from his native Ceylon to London. He is to meet his mother there.

The work comprises his encounters with adult passengers, encounters he shares with two other young boys, the restive Cassius and the reflective Ramadhin. They have fun roaming the ship, as Ondaatje writes, “like freed mercury.” And absorbing the adult lives around them, even as they often do not understand what is really happening among the crew and their fellow passengers.

For a long while, the novel presents us with a series of disconnected incidents, all of them interesting and entertainingly told. And yet…what is the purpose of these adventures, the reader wonders. There is a stray dog, meetings in the bowels of the ship, a theatre troupe, a shackled prisoner, a mysterious garden, a burglar who deceives the boys into helping him, etc. The most spectacular adventure occurs when Michael and Cassius have themselves tied on the ship’s deck to experience a storm at sea.

And there are also the mysterious adults, beautiful cousin Emily, a mystifying mature Miss Lasqueti, a musician Mr. Mazappa, a wealthy aunt, Flavia Prins, a card-playing roommate, Mr. Hastie, plus others. Many of them eat at Michael’s assigned table, called the cat’s table because it is the most unworthy, the furthest from the captain’s.

But there is no connection between these adventures, which read like short stories, except showing the boys being exposed to adult life. Until…at certain intervals the author moves the story ahead, to Michael’s life in England and later in Canada, and his subsequent connections to his two pals and to Emily. Whereupon, we understand how all those shipboard adventures helped to form the adult lives of these youngsters. Nothing that happened on that voyage directly affected their future lives, no, but such disparate adventures helped prepare these young people for the adult world.

It is the voyage that is the heart of this novel, but it is those glimpses of future lives that give this novel its body. The novel would have no direction without them. And what works is that these incidents are interpreted from the perspective of adulthood, and that Michael’s later understanding of those experiences gives the work its emotional impact. In this, I disagree with Maslin in the Times who writes that “the melancholy of adult life seems ordinary by comparison.” No, it is the later reflections about that voyage that bring a focus and a sense of completeness to these characters, especially to Michael.

This work is quite different from The English Patient. Its characters are so young, and its setting is basically on a passenger ship. But it is also similar in that it exists on two time levels, and it is the connection between those two levels that gives the novel its meaning. In this case, the adventurous voyage that the boys experience, but do not fully comprehend, has a meaning that influences their later lives. And that influence, like the shipboard adventures, sometimes has a positive impact and sometimes a negative one.

Maslin quotes Ondaatje’s narration: “There is a story, always ahead of you. Barely existing. Only gradually do you attach yourself to it and feel it. You discover the carapace that will contain and test your character. You will find in this way the path of your life.” This is exactly how this work is constructed. The boy, innocent in the ways of the adult world, receives a lesson he is not aware of at the moment. And this experience of a world without supervising adults, of a time of no responsibility, will create in him a sense of independence that will both help him and frustrate him in his later attempt to give his life direction.

This novel reads as a very autobiographical work, because it captures so well a youthful rambunctiousness and innocence. But Ondaatje takes pains at the end to state that it is not autobiographical, neither its passengers, its crew, nor its narrative. However, I believe he may well have extrapolated from the impact on him of a real voyage to create this fictional voyage. Certainly, the presence of the ocean, the port of Aden, and the Suez Canal, as well as the shipboard atmosphere (the cabins, the dining room, the deck, the engine room, etc.) are convincingly real. The author had to have had similar shipboard experiences before he created these fresh characters and his narrative.

Michael has two relationships as an adult, one that fails, one that is inconclusive. He marries Massi, the sister of Ramadhin, in what seems an inevitable romance, but the marriage is dissolved by the author as quickly as it is generated, as if Michael’s failure is what matters, not the romance. But I was much more interested in Michael’s relationship with his cousin Emily, who on the ship awakened in him an awareness of sex. As the book closes, he meets her off the coast of Vancouver, and their relationship is left incomplete, but it is an intriguing relationship that the author might well have further explored.

Whether I shall read more Ondaatje may well depend on the story his has to tell. I was intrigued here by a story of youth, as seen from an adult perspective, as I was before by a story of war and responsibility. I am also impressed by Ondaatje’s style, which is simple, yet rich and reflective. And I am most impressed by the emotional and psychological issues that reverberate out of their past. (February, 2013)