American Romantic

Ward Just's excellent novel about a foreign service officer posted to Indochina in the 1960s may be his finest work to date.

American Romantic, by Ward Just, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 272 pp.

Ward Just’s new novel is old-fashioned in the best kind of sense – the kind of book Graham Greene would have written around the middle of the last century.

That’s not to say that it’s derivative or nostalgic. Just, a Pulitzer Prize finalist who is in his late 70s, writes with vibrancy and authority. But American Romantic is a book about world events and that most grown-up of grown-up jobs, diplomacy.

Harry Sanders, a young foreign service officer posted to Indochina in the 1960s, finds himself embroiled in two field missions, one of which will permanently affect his health and the course of his career. Harry is a scion of a well-to-do Connecticut family whose Sunday brunches included power brokers discussing world events around the Regency table and who didn’t have to go to a museum to see paintings by Marsden Hartley.

While it’s never named, the country Harry is stationed in is clearly Vietnam, in which Just served as a foreign correspondent for The Washington Post.

“The war fit no known precedent or pattern in American history with the possible exception of the Revolutionary War. It was sui generis and unspeakably tedious unless you were engaged with it day by day,” Just writes. “When you were there, the war was your entire life, as seductive as the sun now disappearing over the western hills, their outlines becoming indistinct.”

The book opens with Harry becoming an inadvertent witness to an older woman’s death during a reconnaissance mission to “Village Number Five,” and then being shot at on his way back to the boat. “My fate was to witness events I didn’t understand and would never understand,” Harry concludes about his first posting.

Harry has an intense affair with Sieglinde Hechler, a nomadic X-ray technician stationed on a German hospital ship. Sieglinde calls Harry “an American romantic,” giving the novel its title. She disappears abruptly, but Harry has no way of tracing her and no time to look for her. (Readers might find themselves a little less entranced by Sieglinde’s capricious entrances and exits, but it’s a small flaw in an otherwise terrific novel.)

The rebels have made tentative overtures, and Harry is sent, not quite officially, to parley with them. He winds up being detained. After some time, he escapes but has to kill a an enemy soldier. He arrives back in Saigon badly damaged – and damaged goods as far as the diplomatic service is concerned. However, the State Department owes him and it knows it, leading to a series of favorable postings that are never quite central to world events.

“Neither of us knew the rules of the game because it wasn’t our game, a thought you might tuck away for future use in case you continue in our business, which I sincerely hope you will,” says his boss, the wonderfully named Ambassador Basso Earle III. “Remember, the ambassador said without looking up, our business is not a straight-line affair. We deal with curves and switchbacks, the yes that means no and the no that means maybe.”

Earle is a terrifically drawn character, a Lousiana insider with an innate understanding of the vagaries of diplomacy, who learned early from his father and uncle the price of the sin of inattention.

“Basso Earle also liked to hide behind his accent, the crushed syllables and slow diminuendos, slippery as glass. He gave the impression of being slightly hard of hearing. In other words, an easy man to underestimate,” Just writes.

Both Earle and Harry will pay for the failed mission, but neither character is prone to navel-gazing. They are also disinclined to whine.

Knowing that the file about his aborted peace mission will likely be locked up for the next 50 years, Harry thinks about the stories he will tell during his postings elsewhere – to Paraguay, Norway, the Mediterranean. “The stories would not involve high diplomacy … because there was no high diplomacy here. Perhaps low diplomacy, an unsuccessful mission into the swampy southern jungle, for example,” he thinks about his abruptly cutoff time in Saigon. “Cities and their rivers cast shadows, and he knew that these would cast shadows as long as he lived, moments of truth so to speak.”

As time passes, Harry becomes the elder statesman, watching ruefully as his government retraces the mistakes of his early days: “Listening to them he could only recall his own war, the same excuses, the same lame optimism.”

“American Romantic” is an introspective novel, one that is able to riff intelligently about Herodotus, El Greco, and Che Guevara. Wide-ranging and well-written, it may be Just’s finest work to date.

Yvonne Zipp is the Monitor fiction critic.

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