One of my favorite non-Southern writers is Ward Just, a mid-list writer with fifteen novels, who has never been on the best-seller list. Forgetfulness is a typical Just novel, which is usually set in Europe, most often in France or Germany, which means the characters are eating cassoulet and papillon oysters instead of barbecue, grits, and cornbread.
There are two questions I am frequently asked as a professional book critic. The first is, "Do you ever get tired of reading Southern literature?" The answer is "Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Oh my God, yes!" The other question is, what do I read for enjoyment, for my own amusement. The answer to this is, a lot of history and biography. For example, I recently read a biography of Edmund Wilson, the best book critic in the history of the United States, and Inside Hitler's Greece, the history of the Nazi occupation of Greece in WWII. Considering the atrocities committed at that time, this latter book is a testimony to the forgiving nature of the Greeks.
I also have a number of favorite novelists who are not Southerners. One of the best of these is Ward Just, a mid-list writer with fifteen novels, who has never been on the best-seller list but whose Echo House was a finalist for the National Book Award and whose The Unfinished Season was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
Just was a reporter for the Washington Post in Vietnam in the late sixties and gets credit in some journalism circles for being among the first to report the truth about that war. He began publishing novels in 1970 and they do have a discernible style. His characters are usually men involved somehow in the upper middle reaches of power. They are military, though not generals, politicians, but not presidents. They are often CIA or State Department or foreign service or officers of some international nongovernmental organization.
These books are usually set in Europe, most often in France or Germany, which means the characters are eating cassoulet and papillon oysters instead of barbecue, grits, and cornbread. They sit under plane trees, not magnolias. The characters enjoy comfortable train rides from place to place and sometimes even eat well, on the train; there are few pick-up trucks. They drink pastis, not moonshine, Beaujolais, not Bud Light, and cheerleaders, quarterbacks and football coaches are unheard of. It is so refreshing.
Forgetfulness is a typical Just novel. Thomas Railles is a professional, successful portrait painter in his sixties, living with his French wife, Florette, in St. Michel du Valcabrere at the foot of the Pyrenees. The year is 2004, and the world has become a very small place.
In the opening sequence, Thomas is being visited by two friends from his childhood in LaBarre, Wisconsin. Both friends are career CIA and Thomas has dabbled. "He always thought of his odd jobs as a lark . . . the small change of espionage. His work was such a solitary business he often felt the urge to break out, as a bank teller might take up . . . high stakes poker."
But Thomas's wife, out for a walk in the woods, is murdered by four Moroccan Arabs. Is it random, or payback for one of Thomas's odd jobs? Thomas, a man who was nearly alone, in a small remote village with just his wife, is now perfectly alone, and the novel becomes a meditation on grief. Then when Thomas's CIA buddies and French intelligence capture the four Arabs, the novel turns into a meditation on revenge, and its potential and, finally, its inability to offer solace. Thomas is invited to watch the Arabs being tortured, or even participate, if he feels like it. But what good would it do? Justice? Revenge? Nothing will bring Florette back to him.
Ward Just's books are contemporary and political but they are not action-thrillers. In Forgetfulness, no cars blow up. Not one gun is fired. This is an old -fashioned psychological novel, as we follow the thoughts and feelings of a character who is in fact educated, well-traveled, and an artist, thoughtful and feeling.
Thomas, restless, moves back to America, to New York City, to LaBarre?a futile exercise?and finally to an island off the coast of Maine, all the while sketching, painting, and ruminating on post?Twin Towers America and its relationship to the rest of civilization. The Arabs in the novel think of Americans as complainers, "people who believed they occupied a unique place in the world, a place under God's special benevolence." The French think of Americans as possessors of "a cult of restlessness, people moving on as a matter of course. If you didn't like the hand you were dealt?the wife, the job, the color of your hair or the shape of your bosom?you dealt yourself another."
Ward Just's novels are, in part, a study of how Americans are perceived by others, and this is something worth knowing.