A film director’s late-life odyssey toward self-understanding is viewed from an impressive variety of perspectives in this 13th novel from the former Washington journalist (Lowell Limpett, 2001, etc.).
Just’s protagonist is Dixon Greenwood, who won brief fame during the “golden age” of American movies (late 1960s–early ’70s) with his cult classic feature Summer, 1921, a sexually forthright portrayal of German artists between the two world wars. “Dix” is haunted by the crisis that occurred during filming: the inexplicable disappearance of young actress Jana Sorb, long since presumed dead. Thirty years later, Dix accepts a three-month “residence” in Berlin, where an interview with an archivist (for “an oral history on moviemaking”) triggers detailed memories (rendered in staggered flashbacks) of his life, loves, and career—while meeting with local artists and intellectuals; adjusting to Berlin’s “gray,” bleak climate; and eventually persuading himself to guest-direct an episode of Wannsee 1899, a popular TV costume drama that romantically portrays “German life at the turn of the century.” A surprise visitor from his past alters Dix’s preconceptions and perceptions, forcing him to confront his own history as a manipulator (and, to some extent, an exploiter), as well as the irony of presuming to “direct” other people’s lives and fates. Just has packed much of a lifetime’s experience and observation into this survey of a chaotic century’s jagged momentum, and the meditative rhythms grow increasingly seductive. Past and present are seamlessly conjoined, and Dix’s conflicted epiphanies are realized in several brilliant set pieces, including a marvelous sequence in a Berlin café where Dix and two German women acquaintances are served by a sardonically polite Vietnamese waiter; and the account of Dix’s half-willing participation in the shooting of a wounded, cornered wild boar.
A symphony of reverie, vivid symbolic statement, and unsparing sociohistorical and self-analysis. Just has never done anything better.