Ward Just is in many ways the contemporary American equivalent of the late C.P. Snow. Like Snow’s, his novels are situated with great precision in the “real” world, realistically rendered, and they are concerned with power, with decision making, and with the far-reaching consequences of the decisions made. While they often include family conflicts—most poignantly those of fathers and sons (as in Snow’s The Conscience of the Rich and Just’s The American Ambassador, 1987)—the domestic struggle is nearly always placed within a larger, more public sphere. The ethical quotient in their novels is always high, for the choices made typically involve questions of loyalty to one’s colleagues or (as in Just’s Jack Gance, 1989) to one’s sense of personal integrity. Expert or “inside” knowledge plays a large part in the fiction of both men—Snow drawing heavily upon his experience as a scientist and civil servant, Ward Just upon his years as a Vietnam War correspondent and prominent Washington journalist.
The Translator, Just’s ninth novel, is probably as topical as a novel can be, given the time needed for writing and publication. The action, which takes place in the winter of 1989–1990, as the Wall crumbles and the reunification of Germany becomes an inevitability, involves a scheme, engineered by one Junko Poole, a shady American entrepreneur with past CIA connections, for the transfer, at great profit, of stolen Warsaw Pact weapons in East Germany—weapons whose ultimate destination is presumably the Middle East. Poole in turn enlists the services of Sydney van Damm, an expatriate German living in Paris, to assist him in the enterprise by translating documents and transcribing tapes. Van Damm, the novel’s central figure, makes a barely adequate living as the translator of German novels into English; he badly needs money for the sake of his discontented American wife, Angela, who was brought up with greater expectations, and their brain-damaged son, whom Angela longs to reclaim from the hospital where he has been placed. While the above may look like a plot outline for an international thriller, the appearance is misleading. Just has other, weightier matters to pursue.
One of these is the exploration of the contemporary German “character” as manifested in Sydney (once Siggy) van Damm; his hard-bitten old mother, Inge, who, loathing the “Americanized” hedonism of West Germany, has moved to her ancestral village in East Germany; Milda, a sexy German airline stewardess who stays, between flights to Bahrein, in the van Damms’ apartment building in Montmartre; Erich, a dour, disillusioned East German Party member who is now involved in the arms deal; and finally the distinguished German novelist Josef Kaus, whose works Sydney translates.
Between them, they represent the old, dutiful, patriarchal Germany, clinging to its Teutonic myths, paranoically obsessed with its place in Europe, and the new, prosperous Germany with its fast cars, dirty movies, and backyard swimming pools, a Germany which, in the words of the stewardess, is “waiting for people to die so that the war can be forgotten.” Thinking of Milda and her fellow stewardesses, Sydney sees them as migratory birds, floating above the earth:
They were not part of any community, except the common market of Europe. When she went to sleep she counted countries, perhaps dreaming of the sexy boyfriend or the sheikh whose skin was smooth as butter.
Sydney himself is caught between two worlds and has chosen voluntary exile in Paris as the best solution for himself. His rare visits to his homeland are disillusioning, occasions for bleak ruminations on the past. On his final visit, which takes place during a crucial stage of the weapons deal, he drives a conspicuous Mercedes (rented for him by Junko Poole) to the windswept Baltic village to which his mother has retired; there, after discovering that his mother has recently died, Sydney is killed by the East German secret police (Stasi) who have been alerted to the scam.
Another theme involves the economic and moral decline of America—a decline that seems to point irresistibly toward a fall. This theme is embodied in the cynical opportunism of Junko Poole, who seems pleased that the dollar is plummeting; in the angry words of Sydney’s wife, Angie; and in the despairing situation of Angie’s once-rich old father, who lives in a large, leaking house in a part of Maine where no plumbers, no roofers, no electricians are any longer to be found. At one point Angie, grieving over her increasingly uncontrollable child, throws down the paper she has been reading and gives way to her disgust:
That hopeless, hopeless country. They’re killing little children. They’re raping women in daylight. Women give birth to heroin addicts. No one cares. They’re watching a country destroy itself and no one acts. They behave as if it isn’t their country, that it’s the Sudan or Ethiopia, someplace they hear about on the evening news. I used to think sometimes we’d go back there when we were old, maybe live there for a year so I could get reacquainted, a kind of sabbatical. But now. It’d be like reacquainting yourself with the Gulag or Dachau.
Germany is soulless, America is hopelessly decadent, France is self-indulgent, the Middle East is unstable. As one can surmise, The Translator is a melancholy novel. It might also be called dispiriting, a “downer.” The problem arises not, I think, from the pessimism as such—a pessimistic vision can, after all, fascinate, even exhilarate—but from certain fictional inadequacies in its presentation. Chief among these is the characterization of two of the central figures, Sydney van Damm and Junko Poole.
Sydney is a dutiful, decent, modest man; he is also, alas, phlegmatic and somewhat wooden as a central character. Ward Just has not succeeded in making the commonplace seem fully worth our attention and imaginative involvement. Consequently, Sydney’s fate strikes us as perhaps pathetic but little more; the reader simply does not have enough at stake in his existence to care very much. Junko, the American wheeler-dealer, is a confection, more the idea of a charming, amoral rogue than the fictional embodiment of one. The dialogue assigned to him is glib, full of routine obscenities—and never, to my ear, believable or charming for a moment. The most successfully conceived character is Angie, whose honest, spiky New England personality carries conviction and whose plight at the novel’s end is both desperate and moving; her role, however, is not central enough to breathe life into the book as a whole.
I also found myself vaguely ill at ease with the novel’s prose style. It is efficient, knowing, and never less than coherent. Many sections are as graphic as the best reporting—particularly those that deal with Sydney’s boyhood experiences in the Second World War. On the other hand, page after page is given over to a rehash of the Josef Kaus novel that Sydney is currently translating—a rehash that, whatever its thematic importance in evoking the “old Germany,” stops the novel’s action in its tracks. The too worldly, too allusive, too obviously rhetorical quality of much of the writing (which is never less than journalistically assured) can perhaps be suggested by the following passage in which Sydney takes a good look at both Junko Poole and himself:
He turned to Junko, who was smoking serenely with the air of a man at ease on the grounds of a country house somewhere, perhaps waiting for the clatter of the cocktail trail…. Rising now, he leaned forward on one foot, a figure from an eighteenth-century print, Junko Poole, a pillar of the Enlightenment, prosperous, Godless, and confident. Beside him, Sydney felt like a degenerate monk of the Middle Ages, knowing that the wind was blowing from the underworld and helpless before it, weary of science and skeptical of prayer…. He led a dull life…. They all tried to get on, as people did, though Junko’s world was more spacious, altogether more unpredictable, various, and fun, absorbed as he was in the great task of capital formation, working at it with the protean intensity of Voltaire on Candide, and to a roughly similar subversive end, except that Junko’s scientific garden was the wide world.
Like C.P. Snow, Ward Just has a tendency to become a bit didactic, even dull, when his inspiration flags.
Larry Brown’s second novel, Joe, which comes recommended by readers as disparate as Cleanth Brooks, Harry Crews, and William Kennedy, is set in an updated version of Faulkner’s fictional countryside. Brown, who has recently retired after sixteen years as a professional firefighter in northern Mississippi, is drawn to the vernacular in both language and mores. Though one catches echoes of Faulkner from time to time—specifically the Faulkner who created the “white trash” Snopeses and Bundrens—what Joe really brings to mind are those comic-grotesque novels, Tobacco Road and God’s Little Acre, by that nearly forgotten chronicler of rural depravity, Erskine Caldwell. The degree to which Brown’s intentions are comic is certainly questionable, but there can be no doubt about his preoccupation with the grotesque, the horrific, and the depraved.
Joe is organized into sections which deal alternately with the wretched lives of a shiftless migrant family named Jones and with the down-spiraling career of Joe Ransom, the hard-drinking, middle-aged man of considerable decency for whom the book is named. At various points their stories intersect. The Jones family is dominated by the brutal and drunken father, Wade, generally referred to as “the old man.” His unnamed wife (“the old woman”) has been reduced to an almost moronic state by hardship, physical abuse, and the loss of two of her children. The children accompanying them include a rebellious daughter, Fay, who runs away at mid-point in the novel and is never heard of again; Gary, a boy of about fifteen (no one knows exactly, for he has no birth certificate or Social Security number), who struggles gamely against the prevailing hopelessness; and a girl of about twelve, so traumatized that she has lapsed into total muteness. When we first meet the Joneses, they have been wandering on foot for a long time, without money and with almost no food. The old man goes into near ecstasy when they find three dented and mud-slathered but unopened cans of beer in a ditch by the road. Gary, who uncomplainingly carries most of the family’s few possessions, watches silently:
His father opened the can and foam exploded from it. It ran down over the sides and over his hand and he sucked at the thick white suds with a delicate slobbering noise and trembling pursed lips. He tilted the can and poured the hot beer down his throat, leaning his head back with his eyes closed and one rough red hand hanging loose by his side. A lump of gristle in his neck pumped up and down until he trailed the can away from his mouth with his face still turned up, one drop of beer falling away from the can before it was flung, spinning, backward into the ditch. He started walking again.
Wade is described in such animal-like—or bestial—terms throughout the novel.
The “good guy,” Joe, makes his first appearance at 4:30 in the morning as he rises from “a sleep filled with nightmares of shooting guns and swinging pool cues launched up in his face and stealthy blacks with knives who lurked around corners with their eyes walled white in the darkness….” He starts his day by feeding his dog, a scarred half pit bull known simply as “dog,” takes several swallows of Coke followed by whiskey, and then sets off in his rusty old truck to pick up the little crew of blacks for whom he is the foreman. At the black housing project where he stops for two more workers, he sees several patrol cars and the body of a man lying on the asphalt. “What’s done happened?” he asks Junior, the young black who is about to climb into the truck. “Aw, Noony been drunk and talkin his old shit again,” Junior replies. “Bobby’s boy shot him, Mama said.” The casual taking of life is matched by the equally casual destruction of the landscape. Joe and his crew work for a lumber company, and their job is to poison the trees in a large tract of woods in order to replace them with pine seedlings.
Joe, who has served time in the penitentiary, is not only an alcoholic but a fighter, a gambler, and, to the best of his rapidly declining ability, a womanizer. His wife has left him—for good reason—but still loves him. He compulsively antagonizes the local police. By the novel’s end he is about to shoot a peculiarly repulsive old enemy, an act which will certainly land him in the pen again—this time for a very long term. Yet Larry Brown clearly means us to like Joe and he succeeds to a large degree in making us do so. Through all of Joe’s self-destructiveness and violence, a generosity shines through, especially in his relationship to the boy Gary, to whom he gives work and a chance to escape the morass of his own family.
Joe is far from subtle. The character of Wade is melodramatically conceived: a monster of unmitigated evil, he beats up his wife and children, grabs their food, takes away his son’s hard-earned money, steals whenever he can, murders a black wino for a few bucks, and sells his twelve-year-old daughter into prostitution. In his fecklessness and iniquity, Wade resembles Erskine Caldwell’s once famous character Jeeter Lester, but whereas Caldwell seemed to regard his monster as almost a campy joke, Larry Brown presents his with scarcely a trace of humor. If Wade is a figure of melodrama, his son Gary is the product of melodrama’s next of kin, sentimentality. While it would be nice to think that a youth so good, so caring, so full of a sense of responsibility, could emerge from a background so depraved (and so deprived that he does not know how to use a toothbrush or what a traffic light is), I found myself stubbornly withholding belief.
Joe is endowed with somewhat greater complexity and his self-awareness engages our sympathies; yet he too is a grade-B movie character, the roughneck with a heart of gold. The crudity of Brown’s approach extends to the novel’s events as well as its characterization: despite the Deep South’s well-known penchant for violence, the piling up of horrors (including the incident in which Joe’s pit bull chews out the throat of an equally vicious doberman) comes to seem not only gratuitous but a bit absurd.
None of this is to deny the bludgeoning power of many of the novel’s episodes. Brown knows how to mount scenes of rapidly unfolding action. But his greatest strengths as a writer are to be found in his descriptions of the ruined landscape and in his rendering of the local dialect(s):
The woods thinned and opened up into green hills dotted with horses and cows and cultivated land gleaming wetly under the weak sun trying to break through the clouds. Tarpaper shacks and shabby mobile homes, actually no more than campers, lined the road, the yards full of junked autos and stacked firewood overgrown with weeds and pulpwood trucks with the windows smashed out and the rear ends jacked up and propped on oil drums…. Here and there were school buses fixed up with furniture and beds on the inside, the awnings made of splintered fiberglass, and new brick homes within sight of firetraps where carports were cluttered with dogs and three-wheelers and washing machines.
They turned onto the blacktop…. The bottomland lay untilled and dark with water…. Stumps the size of Volkswagens had been bulldozed into piles in the corners of the fields.
“They gonna plant any of this this year?” said Joe.
Curt tossed his can out the window and reached for another one…. He looked at Joe. “You got any cold beers in that cooler?”
“They’s a six-pack iced down in there. Goddamn, you done drank all of them?”…
“Hell, it’s been too wet…. They tried cuttin part of it about three weeks ago and mired the tractor and brought a dozer over to pull it out and mired it. I reckon it’s still settin there if somebody ain’t done stole it.”
It is in these relatively subdued passages that Brown comes closest, I think, to distilling the essence of the place—and to revealing where his real distinction and promise as a novelist lie.
I would like finally to call attention to a first novel of unusual merit that could easily be overlooked. Written by an editor of Dissent who seems knowledgeable about both the Old and the New Left, The Dylanist is a quiet book, uncontroversial in its assumptions, yet persuasive as the account of a young woman’s coming-of-age in the period of political and moral stagnation that succeeded the Sixties. Avoiding the use of the first person and present tense common among young novelists, Morton has not only chosen to write mainly about a woman but has assumed the right to comment on her experience and feelings as well as to document them. One respects the sympathetic distance which the author maintains, for The Dylanist is not a novel of female impersonation.
“She was a romantic about love, a cynic about everything else. Sally Burke, seven years old, consented to go to the World’s Fair for only one reason: she thought she might meet her future husband there.” So begins the novel. The World’s Fair is not the famous one of 1939, celebrated fictionally by E.L. Doctorow, but the much less successful one staged by Robert Moses in the mid-Sixties. From this starting point in the era of Lyndon Johnson, Morton affectionately follows Sally’s life, proceeding chronologically in brief, vivid scenes—until, by the year of Reagan’s reelection, she has achieved a disillusioned, but far from hopeless, maturity.
What gives Sally Burke’s unremarkable story its poignancy is her background. She is the daughter of the Old Left, the Stalinist left. Her father, Francis Xavier Burke, known to everyone simply as “Burke,” is a union organizer, an undemonstrative man full of bottled up love and anger, a man passionately devoted to his cause and to his work. Sally adores him, but his past and his origins remain mysterious to her; his stories about his Irish-American boyhood in Flushing are those of a strange country with strange ways. They remind her of Chicago, which she had once flown over in the dark: “You could see the lights clearly—but what each light signified, what lay in the dark spaces between them, you had no idea.” The past of Burke’s impetuous Jewish wife, Hannah, is on the other hand immediately understandable to the child—the seamstress mother, the father who was once an actor in the Yiddish theater. Later in the book, Burke, who has uncharacteristically had too much to drink, angrily reminds his daughter that in addition to her Jewish heritage, she has another set of forebears
“who used to sit on the stoop at Tenth Avenue and Forty-third Street, drinking beer all day. And whether you like it or not, their genes and their blood and their view of life flow through you.” He turned, with difficulty, to inspect her. “And if any of them could meet you, they wouldn’t know what to make of you.”
Similarly, Hannah’s attachment to communism is more comprehensible to Sally—May Day parades, Saturday night socials, the singing of folk songs—than is Burke’s, for whom “it was something hard.” Both parents have drifted away from the Party without losing their loyalty to what they understood to be its ideals if not its practice. They still attend reunions of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and still argue vehemently with their socialist friends who, according to Burke, “believe that you can make an omelette without breaking eggs.” But Sally and her brother are warned never to tell anybody that their parents used to be Communists.
The weight of her parents’ involvement in political and social causes hangs over Sally as she grows up in suburban Teaneck, New Jersey, and follows her into later life. She envies it while accepting the fact that she will probably never find its equivalent. She loves the songs of Bob Dylan and half—but only half—accepts the fact that she is what a man who eventually becomes her lover calls her: a “Dylanist”—someone who does not believe in causes, who believes only in feelings.
Sally had always assumed that she was the heroine of her own life….
But now she saw that this might not be true…. Her parents were in the thick of life: staying up all night trying to help some very poor people win a raise and a touch of dignity. While she sat in her room, dumbfounded, listening to an album she’d listened to a thousand times before…. If she were to be written about she’d be written about as a victim of a blank time…. She was locked into a small story of private life.
But the novel continues, and Sally, when we last see her, is pregnant and trying to decide whether to keep the baby and to marry her lover, the patient Ben, who is, even in these diminished times for organized labor, a committed union man; we are left with the impression, if not the conviction, that she will.
Morton describes Sally’s confusions as well as her yearnings with delicacy and insight. His characters are never reduced to caricature. After telling us that Burke “was dedicated, body and soul, to the overthrow of the capitalist order,” the narrator intervenes conversationally:
But let’s not get carried away here. He was a guy from Flushing. He loved Abraham Lincoln. He loved DiMaggio. At the union office he read the Daily Mirror—a tabloid with a great sports section. He kept it hidden inside a copy of the Daily Worker, because the more pious of the comrades would have disapproved.
Whatever their idiosyncrasies or obsessions, Morton’s characters exist within the realm of the “normal”; they are never freaks or monsters, and Morton has the ability—rarer than one might think—to make the “normal” both interesting and amusing. He regularly exhibits what might be called a friendliness toward his characters that is both clear-eyed and unsentimental—an attitude reflected in the informal, unpretentious, but emotionally accurate quality of his writing. Here, for example, is the way Morton records a turning point in Sally’s grief over the loss of her father:
But at the supermarket she had to choose between skim milk and low-fat milk, and she had to choose between the cottage cheese she liked and the cheaper kind that her mother preferred to buy; she had to examine critically the various cuts of meat, numbing herself to the thought that this had been life too, this meat; and after she presented her coupons and watched the cash register girl “like a hawk” as her mother had taught her to do, and after she paid, and received her change, and lugged the two bags out to the car, and after trying for a moment to resist the temptation of turning on WNEW, Where Rock Lives—after doing all this she discovered, to her sorrow, that life was already going back to normal, and that the sense of its preciousness wasn’t something she was going to be able to keep.
January 16, 1992