At the center of this even-tempered novel is a newspaperman far more wedded to his professional than to his personal life.
Ned Ayres is raised in Herman, Indiana, and grows up feeling constricted by the limitations of small-town life—he does not want “to live and die in Herman.” Much to the disgust of his father, a circuit court judge, Ned refuses to go to college and instead joins the local paper. This begins a process of widening opportunities as he works his way up in the profession, editing newsworthy stories and moving from Herman to Indianapolis to Chicago and finally to Washington, D.C. Along the way he has a failed love affair with Elaine Ardmore, who doesn’t share his love of—or obsession with—the news. We also learn of his first big news break, when he was city editor at the Herman newspaper. The article concerned a scandal involving a man who had viciously beaten a gas station attendant, been sentenced to prison, and disappeared after parole. He becomes a haberdasher and prominent citizen in Herman before reporter Gus Harding writes a story revealing his sordid past, and Ned argues for printing it—with tragic consequences for the businessman. Just’s (American Romantic, 2014, etc.) technique is to highlight several major events of Ned’s life, both personal and professional, and to chronicle his interactions with quirky publishers and prominent politicians. By the end, Ned is 80, living a lonely existence in his Eastern Shore manor house and writing his memoirs—strange in a way because his life as an editor has been inherently uneventful and undramatic. We even learn that he’s never been abroad (much less ever married) because the newspaper business has so dominated his life.
Just's narrative stays largely above the rough-and-tumble of newspaper practices, which leads to a curious detachment from their toughness and grit.