“The Eastern Shore”
Author: Ward Just
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Price: $ 25.00 (Hardcover)
Novelist Ward Just may not be a household name, but he should be. In the late 1960’s, Just was a correspondent for “The Washington Post,” reporting from Viet Nam, and turned to fiction in 1969. Over a period of 47 years he has published four volumes of short stories and 19 novels which have received prestigious prizes and nearly won the biggest of them. “Echo House” was a finalist for the National Book Award and “An Unfinished Season” a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Just was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2013.
The fashion these days may be fiction telling the stories of newcomers to America or fiction from the bottom up—the stories of the poor or hitherto unjustly ignored.
Just’s protagonists, on the other hand, are usually high-ranking government officials, members of the intelligence community, ambassadors, generals—those people who have, whether we like it or not, been managing our country since the Second World War. His novels are often set in locales that are either exotic or the centers of international action: Paris, Viet Nam, or Washington, D. C.
Their stories are told in a narrative voice that is smooth and confident; the reader feels he is in the hands of a master storyteller.
In “The Eastern Shore,” Just’s latest, we are told the story of Ned Ayres, a small-town boy from fictional Herman, Indiana, who rises during the golden age of the newspaper business, the 60s and 70s, first in Herman, then Indianapolis and Chicago, until he is the Editor-in-Chief of a paper which is surely modelled on “The Washington Post.”
(The big newspaper career requires this kind of job migration; the journalist and the papers are both better for it.)
In fact Ned has given his life to his work. Always on call, with a cot in his office, Ned has lost his opportunities for a conventional domestic life, but even at the end, alone, has no regrets.
Although he has had several passionate love affairs, readers of a romantic nature might come to think Ned has “wasted” his life, having foregone opportunities to marry and have children, what Zorba the Greek called “the full catastrophe.” He also has refused invitations to travel to Africa, Cyprus, France, passing up opportunities for “adventure.”
But for Ned Ayres, the paper was the adventure, new and exciting to him, every day. He more than loves his work, he “lusts” after it, and that lust is satisfied, as he puts it, chasing commas rather than interns.
Ayres has always been an editor, not a reporter, a writer. He’s “the best blue pencil in the business.”
Ayres believed from the very beginning that editing is an art. The editor sculpts the paper, creates the paper, every page. “A properly edited page one was a thing of beauty that any serious reader would recognize at once and look at for a minute or so before reading.”
And: “Page one, properly designed, was often a work of art, the lead story under a three-column headline and over a two-column explainer, news analysis, a photograph above the fold.”
“The paper was fresh each day.” This is still and always true. Like a painting or any other work of art, today’s paper never existed before and never will again. It is unique, created daily, 365 times a year. To people in the business, this is a kind of miracle.
The powerful newspaper publishers in this novel, Ned’s bosses, believe papers are essential to the community, local or national. Some see themselves as kingmakers, setting the local or even national agenda, influencing elections and legislation, by choosing what to cover, what to omit, what to emphasize.
But, towards the end of the novel, Ayres’ publisher has lost faith. Newspapers, once profitable, are financially a lost cause; the publisher sees ruin ahead. Social media is on the rise, and he says of the internet: “people like it all right but they don’t want to pay for it. They want it free and when they don’t get it free they’re annoyed and think we can’t be trusted.”
In addition to issues of money, power and aesthetics, “Eastern Shore” is also a short seminar on newspaper ethics.
Early in his career, Ned’s paper ran a story revealing the secret, sordid earlier life of a local businessman. The facts were accurate. But he had become a different man, to all appearances a virtuous pillar of the community. Was his earlier life “news”? Did the public have a right or a need to know? They published, and the results were tragic. Was the paper at fault?
Ayres never forgets the incident. Years later, in editing an arts section interview with a world-famous poet, Ned remembers the earlier piece and explains that though the poet reveals herself to be a vulgar, unpleasant woman, she has a right to her privacy. They will not embarrass her.
“The Eastern Shore” is the story of a life concerned with telling stories, of other people’s lives and of public affairs, but, more importantly, perhaps, it is an extended look at one life, privately conducted.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.