Fourteenth outing for Just (The Weather in Berlin, 2002, etc.), who, supple as ever, takes coming-of-age material and puts his distinctive stamp on it.
Wils Ravan may live in farm country outside Chicago, but he’s no rube; he’s been sneaking into a Chicago jazz club since he was 15. Now 19 and wise beyond his years, his urbane narrative voice never seems discordant, a neat trick. His father, Teddy, a rock-ribbed Republican, owns a printing business, where he’s a paternalistic employer, shocked when his people strike. Thinking the Reds may be stirring the pot—it’s the early 1950’s—Teddy hires strikebreakers and carries a gun. When a brick crashes through the window during family dinner, Wils realizes what it means to protect your loved ones and bonds with his father as never before. Then the strike peters out (no winners) and Wils lands a summer job with a Chicago tabloid while going to debutante parties at night. To the North Shore crowd, Wils is newspaper riff-raff; to the reporters, he’s one of the exploiting classes. Caught between the two, he learns that perception can be everything. Then he meets Aurora, so different from the other airheads, no doubt because she’s the daughter of Jack Brune, a divorced Freudian therapist. The rapport is immediate, but the two fight over secrets: He doesn’t believe in having any, she does. Secrets, and their inevitability in even the closest relationships, are what the novel is about, and coming of age means only a partial de-coding of the mysteries. Wils will lose his virginity with Aurora, but their happiness is short-lived; the unpredictable Jack, a man of many secrets, shoots himself after a quarrel with his mistress Consuela, an exotic Greek Cypriot. Aurora orders Consuela out of the house; Wils fails to take his girl’s side, and the lovers become strangers. Wils emerges from his baptism of fire with enough mysteries to ponder for a lifetime.
One of Just’s best works: stuffed with surprises, sparkling with insights.