There’s not much to the Washington Times‘ blurbicle about the top five journalists-turned-novelists in Washington D.C.—you can come up with a top 25 in this burg without thinking too hard, and outgoing Washington Post editor Len Downie is about to add to the pile. (Here, retired journos run to writing novels the way failed politicians run to lobbying firms.) I’m calling attention to it only because it wisely puts Ward Just at the top of the list; I’ve been at this blog for the better part of a year now and haven’t had an opportunity to write about somebody who’s on my short list of best living American writers. I’ll accept any lecture about how this year’s selection for the Nobel Prize in literature speaks to a need for everybody to be a little more intellectually broad-minded; all I ask is that if folks want to spitball lists of American candidates for the prize next year, toss in Just’s name along with Roth, Oates, and DeLillo.
Just hasn’t published a novel this year, which in part explains why he’s off the radar—his most recent novel, 2006’s Forgetfulness, didn’t get much more than perfunctory notices, but it’s a striking emotional portrait of the very intimate effects that geopolitical changes can have. Its predecessor, 2004’s An Unfinished Season, is simply one of the best novels ever written about Chicago; 1997’s Echo House is as close as anybody’s gotten to the great D.C. novel I carped about months ago; A Dangerous Friend and The Weather in Berlin are both deep and engrossing portraits of Vietnam and Germany, respectively. If I have any complaint about being in the reading-for-pay racket, it’s that I have little time to drill into my favorite writers’ older novels, and I’m hoping a new Just novel is coming down the line, if only to give me an excuse.
Below is the first paragraph of An Unfinished Season; it manages to cram a decade’s worth of Mike Royko column themes into a handful of lines. Can I make a sale?
The winter of the year my father carried a gun for his own protection was the coldest on record in Chicago. The winter went on and on, blizzard following blizzard, each day gray with a fierce arctic wind. The canyons of the Loop were deserted, empty as any wasteland, the lake an unquiet pile of ice beyond. Trains failed, water pipes cracked, all northern Illinois was locked in, the air as brittle as a razorblade. The newspaper story that had everyone talking was the account of a young colored woman found frozen solid in an alley on the South Side and taken at once to the city morgue, where an alert doctor discovered the faintest of heartbeats. She was revived, thawed as you would thaw a frozen piece of meat, and in the course of the subsequent examination was found to have so much gin in her veins that—“Jeez, it was like she had swallowed antifreeze,” the doctor said. Religious leaders, ignoring the lurid details in the papers, declared her survival a miracle. She was a young woman touched by the hand of God. Jesus had visited Chicago and saved the humblest and most destitute of his creatures, praise the Lord.