The latest from Just (Rodin’s Debutante, 2010, etc.) considers the toll that a life lived upon the great stage of international politics can take on a man of substance.
Harry Sanders is from a family of Connecticut liberals, the moneyed FDR types, those with Marsden Hartley paintings, Killim rugs and Regency tables at which congressional representatives, generals and financiers dine and debate. In the period before American troops arrive en masse, Harry serves with the State Department in Vietnam. Not yet 30, Harry’s asked to undertake a not-quite-official mission. It goes awry. Mired in disinformation, Harry’s stranded in the jungle, injured, forced to kill. Once the "war turned into an ironist’s feast, a smorgasbord of contradictions and false hopes," Harry becomes damaged goods, but State owes him, and so comes a lifetime of assignments to Paraguay, Africa, Norway. There’s a comfortable, even loving, marriage to May, but Harry forever remembers Sieglinde, a German woman with whom he had an affair in Saigon. May is warm and welcoming, though never quite of a place, forever shadowed. Sieglinde is haunted by World War II's bloodletting and by Germany’s history. Minor characters, especially Harry’s ambassador mentor, fascinate and shine with veracity. The narrative follows Harry, albeit with a significant but short detour with Sieglinde (an episode where her character is broadened). Just writes without quotation marks, but the narrative’s beautifully descriptive story is easily parsed, growing especially intense when Harry is trapped in the jungle and later when he is assaulted by grief. Just offers instances of wry, sardonic observation—as when Harry dismisses Che Guevara as a motivator of female Viet Cong—while also delivering striking imagery, exampled by his description of the jungle as wearing "the tortured face of one of El Greco’s saints. A godforsaken face, morose and resigned." Just is sometimes cynical in his appreciation of diplomacy and existential in regard to God, but Harry, as much a realist as a romantic, is a man astride the American century.
Another brilliant novel from Just: wise, introspective and full of humanity.