Coming of age in Chicago
Kevin Wood / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer
An Unfinished Season
By Ward Just
Houghton Mifflin, 251 pp, 24 dollars
There is a long tradition of coming-of-age stories in Western culture. Some are comic, some are serious and most deal with first or at least formative experiences with love, death, sex and finding one's way in the world.
In that sense Ward Just's excellent An Unfinished Season fits the mold, but his story of Wils Ravan's 19th summer is much more than a simple coming-of-age tale, adding to the above themes such topics as class and generational conflicts, loyalty and social conformity, with observations on the nature of the press and the exercise of power.
Underlying all this is an exploration of how different our individual subjective perceptions of reality are and how loose ends cannot always be tied up.
Setting his story in Chicago during the Red Scare of the early 1950s, Just paints a nuanced but carefully limited backdrop of the world of North Shore debutante balls, corrupt politics and gritty, chaotic newsrooms in the City of the Big Shoulders.
A war correspondent in Vietnam and a former Washington Post journalist, Just has a reporter's eye for detail and hasn't lost the knack for writing a great lead. An Unfinished Season opens with: "The winter of the year my father carried a gun for his own protection was the coldest on record in Chicago."
Just loves to bait his hook with a whiff of mystery concealing a metaphor. Wils, narrating his own story from much later in life, notes that the newspaper story everyone was talking about at the time was "the account of a young colored woman found frozen solid in an alley on the Southside 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."
The mystery of who the woman was and where she went when she left the morgue resurfaces at odd moments throughout the book.
Owing to a serious illness that kept him out of school for a year, Wils is a solitary boy, too much of a loner for his father, a self-made man who parlayed a college scholarship into a law career and a printing business. Teddy Ravan is secure in his knowledge of the world, and equally sure that things are going to hell--the workers at his plant are on strike, the country is being infiltrated by communists and his son isn't interested in team sports. Ravan senior takes the labor strife personally, brings in strikebreakers and has his childhood friend, the sheriff, tap the union's phones.
When the union pushes back with harassing phone calls, threats and finally a brick through the window, the pressure proves too much for Wils' mother, the daughter of Connecticut WASP gentry, and the marriage begins to dissolve. She goes east to care for her dying, perpetually disapproving father, leaving Wils and Teddy alone. Just explores a favorite theme of his--the close but tense relationship between fathers and sons--as Teddy spends lonely evenings trying to instill some of his life's wisdom into the admiring but contrary Wils.
Teddy and his wife reconcile following the death of Wils' grandfather, mainly due to Teddy's reluctant surrender. Just paints a spare portrait of Teddy as his varied fires are left to burn down to embers. He sells the business, lets his wife drain the pond he played hockey on all his life and agrees to take her on a second honeymoon to Havana. He even stops carrying the gun and generally loses interest in the Communists and almost everything else as his wife slowly comes to dominate the household.
With Wils' parents leaving the scene, the second third of the novel deals with his double life as a copy boy at a tabloid Chicago newspaper by day and a tuxedoed guest at North Shore debutante parties by night. Wils finds himself much in demand for his scurrilous tales about the real stories behind the headlines, but the debs and their parents look down on him for working where he does.
One party guest scolds: "Your father has a perfectly respectable business. Why would anyone want to be a newspaper reporter? It's so sordid, what you have to see and do. It's so...vulgar. That colored girl, for example. The stories about her throw such a bad light on things, accentuating the negative, makes us all feel rotten, as if we're being accused of something. I'll tell you this. I won't allow your paper into the house. I don't want the maid to see it."
In this social whirlwind, Wils takes up with Aurora Brule, the headstrong only daughter of a divorced Lincoln Park psychiatrist with an impressive circle of family friends. Dr. Brule won't talk about the wartime experiences that left him emotionally scarred, but upon first meeting Wils, he preaches him a sermon on how hate diminishes the human soul.
Until the novel's very end, the reader is left guessing as to whether the horrors of war alluded to by Jack Brule were committed against him or by him. He keeps a human skull in his office, one with a bullet hole in the temple. He dotes on his adoring daughter, who is waging a cold war with Dr. Brule's live-in girlfriend, a vivacious Greek nightclub singer. When the crisis in the Brule household comes to a head, Aurora demands that Wils choose a side, and his inability to see the situation from one side only dooms their relationship.
With summer drawing to a close, Wils finishes his work at the paper. When he tells the city editor he thinks stories like the tale of the frozen woman are the best type because they are mysteries that just can't be solved, the editor tells him he will never be a reporter: "You like mystery. You don't care much for the truth. But that's not what reporters do."
One wonders if the lecture is something out of Just's own past, as he seems to prefer leaving a few unsolved questions. A final chapter finds Wils in late middle age working for the United Nations. On a visit to Cyprus, he manages to track down Jack Brule's old girlfriend and get a few loose ends tied up, but the larger philosophical questions remain unanswered.
An Unfinished Season is serious, almost somber in tone. While at times nostalgic, even sentimental, it does not look back with rose-tinted glasses. Nor does the author distract with flashy postmodern techniques. He simply tells an excellent story. Just has constructed a mature novel of considerable depth and beauty with enviable craftsmanship.
Copyright 2004 The Yomiuri Shimbun
"Where else would you go when you have an ax to grind?"
Tuesday, October 12, 2004
Coming of age in Chicago