A novel that plays out against a backdrop of Chicago and its environs, a setting that shapes the characters in unexpected ways.
Crusty Tommy Ogden wants to make a statement to his wife and to the world in general, so he decides to transform his family manor in New Jesper, Ill., into a school, grandly known as the Ogden Hall School for Boys. Problem is, Ogden knows nothing about education and in fact only cares for shooting game (elk, deer, boar—it makes no difference). Flash forward a generation or two: Lee Goodell, son of local judge Erwin Goodell and future student at Ogden Hall, overhears a conversation about iniquitous events that have recently occurred about a month apart in New Jesper—first the brutal murder of a tramp, and second the even more savage rape of Magda Serra, a local student. At a meeting at Judge Goodell’s, the local nabobs make a decision to desensationalize the potentially damaging news coverage. Magda, so traumatized that she scarcely speaks a word thereafter, leaves town with her mother, Lee continues his life as a student at Ogden Hall, and later as a young intellectual at the University of Chicago, studying sculpture and philosophy. At the urging of Melody Goodell, the judge’s wife (who feels she’s now “seen the face of evil” in New Jesper), the family moves to a safer and more secure existence on the North Shore, living out their lives in full-throated ease amid country clubs and manicured lawns. Lee eventually marries a promising philosophy student at the University, but then Magda returns, still cautious, still uncertain, but determined to try to find out the full story of what happened to her on that dark day of her violation. To his immense credit, Just doesn’t turn this into a whodunit—in fact, we never learn who committed the crimes—but is instead focused on the intricate, almost Jamesian unfolding of the personal and private lives of his sharply delineated characters.
An understated and delicate offering by a master.