IN THE CITY OF FEAR by Ward Just

IN THE CITY OF FEAR

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Two short sections--one at the beginning, one at the end--frame this ambitious novel about daily power in Washington: a Senator and his wife in their morning kitchen, preparing for the day; the Kennedy-era funeral of a young National Security Council staffer killed by a stolen car. And both of these intimate scenes exhibit what Just does best: the microcosmic view of public life, with glimpses into the private mastery of the powerful. Unfortunately, however, these marvelous, subtle vignettes are in striking, saddening contrast to the book's middle body--which tells a Vietnam-era story of White House evil/foolishness in a strange, murky fashion. Career Army colonel Sam Joyce has been enlisted by the White House and the CIA to oversee an unlikely intelligence/kidnap scheme meant to win the Vietnam war once and for all; and, though Sam knows the plan is sheer folly, he will--as a good soldier--put it into action anyway, especially since a field irregularity on his part is being held over his head as blackmail. Furthermore, Congressman Piatt Warden (whose wife Marina is Sam's long-term lover) has also been enlisted by the White House to pressure through this dubious military adventure. And so the bulk of the book--awkwardly, retrospectively revolving around an endless dinner party--chiefly deals with the terrible trap of claustrophobic power: both Sam and Platt know too much, have too much power, and yet still have too little power to take any truly decisive action. Just (A Family Trust, The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert) brings a deep understanding of the milieu to this serious parable. Unmistakable, too, is his firm pessimism. But--with off-angled, unconvincing dialogue, a confusion of roles (intentional, perhaps, but daunting nonetheless), and a churning, musing tone that never develops any momentum--the effect here is most often forbidding, muffled; and though diligent readers will be rewarded with a measure of enlightenment on power-in-Washington, Just's circuitous, rather stuffy storytelling will discourage many of those who are initially engaged by that deceptive opening vignette.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1982
Publisher: Viking