TWENTY-ONE SELECTED STORIES. By Ward Just, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 398 pp., $17.95 WITH the publication last year of ``Jack Gance,'' Ward Just's tale of a political man's rise from the Chicago machine to the Senate, speculation arose that he was perhaps the best political novelist in the country. This collection of short stories, first published in various magazines, takes the term ``perhaps'' away.
Just explores the subtle yet unyielding grip that politics can have on a man (sometimes a woman, although he has yet to define the political woman), and in so doing he illustrates almost perfectly his own definition of a writer. A writer writes to make his way back from imagination to reality. Just writes about journalists, politicians, and government functionaries because, given enough lives, he would have wanted to be all those things and to see and feel the workings of those organizations directly. Writing means getting as involved as possible in what might have happened had the writer taken a different route.
Just's family owned newspapers in the Midwest, a business he describes as a woman he loved but could not live with. He worked as a journalist but rather early on discovered that he wanted from life what Freud says an artist wants: to bring his fantasies to life and gain the rewards through his art that he can otherwise gain only in those fantasies. And what are the rewards? ``Honor, Power, Riches, Fame, and the Love of Women,'' a quote from Freud and the title of the first story in the collection.
This first story is the long desired escape of a young man from the Midwestern town which turned his father into a bitter political failure. The young man's art is politics, painted and arranged as compromise. His brothers, inheriting and thriving in the family insurance business, do not understand him, any more than they would have if he had become a painter or musician.
Perhaps the best known of the stories is ``The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert,'' which describes a man at the fulcrum of a House career, facing a choice between the symbolism of an antiwar congressional resolution and the usefulness of a completely inglorious education bill. His Flaubert-inspired cynicism guides him; but way inside, in the boy's heart which is in most hopeful men, he is amazed at the deception built into the Congress.
A recurring clause in several stories is the observation that with some people you don't have to finish sentences. For Just, a relationship between pols or bureaucrats is at its nexus when the knowledge of what comes next is shared, and influence or desire needs only to be hinted or obliquely mentioned.
As a result, his political writing is loved by those who know what's going on but not completely expressed. It can be a little baffling to those who don't. It's helpful to have a memory for names and dates. On the political stage, it's the ``noises off'' that shape the drama.
In ``About Boston,'' a mean little story of love and disappointment, Just explores the fine points of the ancient grudge between the old Northeast and the Midwest (which by extension represents everywhere else). But to completely understand the story it helps if you know something of the history of Brahmin exclusiveness and Western insecurity. (If you know something of the history of love and disappointment it helps, also, but I won't finish that sentence.)
I was struck by the realization that Just's stories are each the makings of a very good novel. ``Burns'' is a case in point, a tale of a man loaned by the State Department to the CIA, who overstays his assignment unwittingly and then is not wanted back. Anyone who stayed that long in another agency, the Foreign Service feels, cannot be sufficiently loyal, no matter his protestations. But with sufficient fleshing out of the secondary plots, perhaps in a John LeCarr'e manner, a fine, and probably realistically turbid novel could have been produced.
``Twenty-One'' is a good book for reading and rereading. The stories have been written over a period of some years. No two are the same in structure or subject. But there is a theme, whether Just is writing about Washington, Vietnam, Vermont, or Europe; whether about politics, love, or war. Just's characters are wise, a little arch, and tend to keep their own counsel. You get to meet them in their private lives and thoughts. They don't finish sentences. But they do make you curious about themselves - and about their creator, whose writing is mildly addictive.