Jack Gance, by Ward Just

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)

On the Contrary, by Andre Brink

This 1993 work is a strange novel. It took me a long time to get into it. It is narrated by Estienne Barbier, a Frenchman who has mysteriously fled to South Africa, arriving in 1734. We meet him imprisoned in a dark hole in a dungeon, unable to see light and fed sparingly. But who is he, and why is he there? He passes the time by writing letters to Rosette, a slave who once fascinated him, and whom he once helped escape but soon lost. And these letters to Rosette, this illiterate slave girl, is the novel we are reading. He is explaining to her, and to us, why he has ended up where he is.

He begins with his life story, how he escaped Holland and France with a girl named Jeanne, fleeing in part to escape family responsibility but primarily to escape obvious complications from the scorned husbands of the many women he had seduced. Slowly, we realize that Jeanne is Joan of Arc, and that she is not real but the voice of his conscience, guiding and defending his actions.

He also carries a book that he uses as a guide. It is about Don Quixote de la Mancha, and we realize that Estienne is also a dreamer, an idealist, who initially seeks a mythical city of gold far away in the beautiful African landscape. He learns of it while acting as a record-keeper on an army expedition. And when this idealist tries to write of the injustices he also encounters on that expedition, he is order not to do so. It is the first evidence of his refusal to accommodate to the reality around him, which will soon be exemplified by his pursuit of justice.

The reality that Estienne ignores is that the harsh local government steals from the colonists; and he becomes a leader of the colonialists’ cause. For much of the book he is fleeing from government forces who are after him, finding refuge with various farmers (and their wives). Eventually, however, his colonialist friends desert him, and while the government’s solution, which is to reward his friends, is completely unjust, he realizes his failure and surrenders—and ends up in the dungeon in which we find him at the start of the novel.

Brink obviously intended this novel to offer commentary on the origins of his country, how the modern prejudice against blacks was forecasted in this earlier era when the Dutch administrators controlled the life and the economics of the white settlers, the Afrikans, and the frustrated Afrikans sought wealth by expanding their settlements into the territory of the Hottentots, longtime livestock farmers who came from central Africa—and who became the scapegoats in this failing society.

But Brink has also stacked some of the odds against himself. For while he has created a hero whose position as a fugitive underdog is easy to relate to, and who works in the cause of justice for the settlers, he is also a man who also regards women as victims to satisfy his passions, and who is insecure, often debating with Jeanne to decide and then justify his actions. It is Jeanne, for example, who helps him rationalize leaving his original wife, Neeltje, and their children, and then abandoning the succeeding fiancée, Ghislaine—all so he can achieve his destined glory. For an author to create a complex hero is often desirable, but here the complexity for me is in black and white, rather then in shades of grey.

When Brink also tells us at the beginning what will be the fate of his hero, he forgoes much of the suspense that would be natural as his hero flees the government authorities during most of this book. Which means he wants the focus to be on the society he is depicting and the role of justice in that society. Not on Estienne himself. With the inevitability of Estienne’s failure only emphasizing the injustice he is intent on depicting. It is these hindrances, the absence of a hero I can identify with and the inevitability of his fate, that have thwarted me from becoming involved in this story and in this book.

To sum up, this work has been a disappointment. Not because of its historical setting. Not because of the injustice that is depicted at the heart of this novel. But because of the initial difficulty in understanding who Estienne is and where he has come from. And then because of the focus on his situation, the conclusion of which we know, rather than on the complexity within him as a person. (December, 2015)