Tuesday July 21st, 2009

Real Life on Capitol Hill


The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert and Other Washington Stories by Ward Just
Original edition: Little, Brown, 1973, Currently out of print

Legal disclaimers attached to works of fiction rarely come as enticing as the one that opens Ward Just’s 1973 story collection, The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert and Other Washington Stories:

The characters in these stories are imaginary. They are not based on persons living or dead. Nor are the situations a clef. The author is obliged to state this clearly, in view of the tendency of ‘the new journalism’ to blend fact and fiction.

There is one other reason. Journalism is useful, but truth wears many masks and in Washington facts sometimes tend to mislead. All the facts sometimes tend to mislead absolutely.

If you detect a hint of defensiveness there it may be because Just, before turning to fiction, covered Vietnam for the Washington Post and Newsweek, and writing for such establishment outlets naturally pitted him against the New Journalists who made splatter paintings out of facts. (The narrator of Just’s 1983 story “About Boston” dines with a newspaperman who says that “nouvelle cuisine reminded him of the nouveau journalism — a colorful plate, agreeably subtle, wonderfully presented with inspired combinations, and underdone. . . . A triumph of style over substance.”) The disclaimer, though, can also be read as a kind of endorsement of the New Journalism philosophy. If the facts have a way of misleading, as the last sentence says, then in these nine stories Just is attempting to better capture Washington through fiction. Dispensing with facts permitted him to talk openly about the town. If it was only as a journalist that he could speak truth to power, in this book he aspired to speak the truth about it.

Just took easily to the freedoms that fiction gave him. The title alone of “A Guide to the Architecture of Washington, D.C.” suggests how much he enjoyed the form, playing with irony and tone like a new toy. The story, unsurprisingly, has nothing to do with pillars and statuary. It’s largely a conversation between Paul Candler, legal counsel to an incumbent president who’s just lost reelection, and a fellow power broker, Billingsley. Candler is torn: He can take a sinecure at a New York law firm, but he’s competitive, jealous of another former staffer’s better gig, and thinking that he should concentrate on writing a White House memoir.

The story is little more than an exchange of banter between two old political hands trying to figure out where they rank. But as he does in so many of the stories here, Just puts his newspaper history to good use, finding a blunt kicker that sums up the emotions running through the piece: As Candler hangs up the phone and sits by himself, he thinks, “He hated being on the outs more than he hated anything. For a President’s man habit died hard, and suddenly he was afraid.” Fear being the last feeling someone in Washington would confess, even to himself.

For readers familiar with Just’s later novels, layered with multiple generations and settings, the District-specific stories here will seem surprisingly direct. They will also reveal that little has changed in the decades since the stories were published: The congressman in the title story makes the same emotional, half-sincere bell-clanging for change that politicians do today. The general in “Prime Evening Time” becomes just as seduced and stage-managed by the media as so many are now. A Beltway columnist’s strange shift in topic and tone gets pundits chattering in the way of today’s blogosphere.

In “Burns,” an ambitious State Department staffer is temporarily loaned to the CIA and finds himself trapped as a paper-shuffler. His new boss tells him, cruelly, “Think of yourself as Charles Dickens. . . . Writing a novel, a new installment every month. Odd turnings of plot. But a bold metaphor. Except that this novel goes on forever and forever, of course.” In a low-level government worker, Just finds a window onto the slow-moving gears of the intelligence machinery, the nature of bureaucratic ambition, and, even still, the pleasures of diplomatic life. Just is aware of the Kafkaesque absurdities of government, but he isn’t simply poking fun. When Burns locates an obscure but critical datum after another solo humdrum dinner, Just encompasses the ambition that powers the city, and how simultaneously ennobling and diminishing it can be.

The paperback you can buy now that goes by the title The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert is a different creature than the book published in 1973. Only five of the nine stories in the original are included in the most recent edition, the rest made up of stories published since the original collection came out. After the mid-’70s, Just’s geographic range expanded well beyond Washington to cover more of the United States, including his native Chicago (“The North Shore, 1958” today reads like a rehearsal for his brilliant 2004 novel, An Unfinished Season), and then spread out to the rest of the world; France, Spain, and especially Vietnam, where journalists and officials stumble into affairs and wonder if their work is honorable or vampiric. Regardless of setting, his characters have an almost uniformly literary bent, with books rarely far from reach — not just Flaubert but also Faulkner, Salinger and the most obvious model for Just’s style, Henry James.

In the introduction to the revised edition, Just writes, “some of the [stories] I remembered as won-der-ful turned out to be less so, and are not included here.” “Burns” and “Architecture” both made the cut, but one of the stories he deemed not so won-der-ful is “Nora.” About a young journalist who hopes to crack the fiction market, perhaps it hit a little too close to home. But it’s worth hunting down, given Washington’s current (perpetual?) climate of sex scandal. Nora is a British journalist who has an affair with a well-regarded Midwestern senator, who loves her so much he’s willing to divorce his wife and resign his post. But as Nora sees it, she’s stuck in a classic Catch-22. If they stay together they court scandal, but if he quits he becomes useless to her. “He says he’s through with motels and through with his wife,” she tells the story’s narrator. “But he doesn’t know what I know. Which is that without politics he’s a different man, and not as good a man.” Later (spoiler alert), when the senator announces his separation from his wife, Nora is outraged. “Is that what you do in Washington?” she asks a friend. “If you decide to get a divorce, leave someone’s bed, do you first prepare an announcement to give to the newspapers?”

Just takes Washington seriously, which means he’s aware of its paradoxes and hypocrisies and the humor therein — and “Nora,” relatively mechanical though it is, is one of Just’s most pointed studies of that humor. (My copy of the 1973 edition has, folded inside its pages, a couple of yellowed Nixon-skewering cartoons by Herblock clipped from the Post. Reading the gags and then the snippets of reports about Watergate and the Pentagon Papers on the other side of them feels appropriate, like Just’s M.O. in miniature.) In the years since The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert, Just has written a host of novels that drill into the emotional life of the Federal city. The most effective of them is 1997’s Echo House, along with 1982’s In the City of Fear and the recently published Exiles in the Garden.

Just’s mission, to examine the emotional life of D.C., is more audacious than it first sounds. Few bother to think that the corners of the city that house wealthy politicians and diplomats, Georgetown and Capitol Hill, have much emotion worth investigating. Countless authors of thrillers turn these people into hacky functionaries. The world that Just inhabits is one that even those who think and care about Washington assume isn’t worth the fictional trouble, but he manages to make it read like the easiest and most rewarding one to write about.

Mark Athitakis is a book reviewer who has written for many publications, including the New York Times Book Review, Washington Post, Chicago Sun-Times and Minneapolis Star-Tribune. He blogs at American Fiction Notes.

Books mentioned in this review:

The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert (New Edition)
The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert (Original Edition)
An Unfinished Season
Echo House
In the City of Fear
Exiles in the Garden