On the cusp of maturity, he straddles the world

A young man in the 1950s hovers between visions of Chicago and World World II

Ward Just's new novel, "An Unfinished Season," is a strange act of historical ventriloquism. A 60-year-old narrator in the early 1990s recalls a summer in the 1950s in a voice that sounds like F. Scott Fitzgerald memorializing the 1920s. It's not so much that you can't put it down, but that you shouldn't put it down because the moment you stop reading, the spell breaks and you're left with the aftertaste of pretentious insight.

For Wilson Ravan, the summer before college was a time of momentous change. His wealthy family lives in a rural town on the North Shore of Chicago, removed from both the high society and the industry of the city. His father is a powerful man who owns a printing company. His mother is a brittle woman with nothing to do but cook and knit.

After years of paternalistic management, the printing plant suffers a strike that shocks Mr. Ravan and breaks his confidence. Cold-war paranoia quickly transforms a dispute about salaries and bonuses into a cosmic battle, a face-off between a hardworking American owner and godless strikers controlled by their evil bosses in the Soviet Union.

With his liberal prep-school education, 19-year-old Wilson sees all this as political hyperbole, but when his father starts carrying a gun and a brick flies through their window, his amusement is displaced by awe. "I was watching him," Wilson says, "in order to learn what it was to be a man, with a man's burdens, how to behave in adversity."

That's a typically slippery comment from this maddening narrator, who oozes earnest sincerity and weighty import. Yes, he watches his father to learn what it is to be a man, but only the way Jane Goodall watches gorillas. No matter how much Wilson admires the man's strength or cherishes his advice on alcohol and women, he remains fundamentally superior. Even when he laments his own ignorance, it's in such grandiose terms that he sounds burdened with special wisdom.

Wilson is that most treacherous of friends (and narrators), the humble, self-effacing observer who wants only to witness and understand the challenges other people face. Through his father's connections, he gets a summer job at a scrappy downtown newspaper where he relishes the wheeling and dealing of city life, soaking up the secret details of stories that never make it into print.

But there's a craving, unseemly quality to how much he loves this job, watching the "carnival of love nests, revenge killings, slumlords, machine draft, and Communists deep in the apparatus of state and national government."

After work, he lurks around city bars, listening to jazz with soulful sensitivity no other white man could match.

And in the evenings, he adopts his bon vivant persona, dons a tuxedo from Brooks Brothers, and attends an endless stream of debutante balls lifted from "The Great Gatsby," complete with a revival of the Charleston.

At one of these parties, he falls madly in love with a similarly precocious young woman and gets swept up into a family tragedy from World War II that's completely beyond his ability to comprehend or negotiate.

Wilson claims, "I was inhabiting three parallel worlds: the newspaper, the parties, and the house." But in fact, he inhabits only one: his own romantic voice, full of gorgeous despair, a bubble of sepia tones.

"I knew I was traveling from one realm to another, crossing the line that divided youth from maturity, and that this moment had tremendous weight and that I would refer to it often and that later on it would have more than one meaning."

Tremendous weight, indeed. Poor Wilson carries a load of such moments, polished into little gems from years of fondling. What's most unnerving about this novel is that the author so rarely tips his hand or breaks through his narrator's overwrought sensitivity to let us know that he, too, finds all this a bit rich.

"I shivered in the chill," Wilson says, "looking at the constellations and Chicago's sulfurous glow on the Southern horizon, wishing to God I was five years older." But with a voice like this, if he were five years older, he'd be collecting Social Security.

It's such a pleasure when, on Wilson's last day at work, the editor turns on him suddenly and unleashes a biting critique of the young man's disdain for concrete information, his affection for mystery and affect. Utterly unfazed, Wilson walks away from the newsroom, rhapsodizing the wonders of gritty Chicago life, and spends the afternoon looking at Impressionist paintings at the Art Institute. It's a wonderful irony, completely lost on Wilson, who knows so much and so little at the same time.

An epilogue 40 years later shows Wilson as a career diplomat for the United Nations, the perfect job for a man burdened by a sense of superior insight and the desire to mediate others' complex lives.

"I have never had the slightest illusion that I could bend the world to my will," he tells us in the closing pages, "and I refused to bend to the world's, so I have lived a kind of shadow life."

I want to think that Just intends the irony here, but the luxurious lines that Wilson gets to deliver all the way to the end about the romantic tragedy of his life suggest otherwise. "I was the mariner who had seen the surface of the sea," he sighs, "but had no knowledge of life beneath it." If you fall in love with that voice, as the author did, "The Unfinished Season" is a moving and beautiful reminiscence of a time of great change.

"I was 19 years old," he writes, "and that was my view of things after my circus summer." The self-conscious artifice of this testimony makes that an essentially dishonest claim.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments about the book section to Ron Charles.

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