Another one of the overlooked masters of American literature is Ward Just. While much of his work deals with the world of politics and journalism, I have no idea what his political leanings are. I don’t care. His writing is engaging and pulses with a wisdom born of long and close observation of human nature. I’d call him a Jane Austen of American politics, but his works have more ache and tragedy in them than would seem appropriate at Northanger Abbey.
His fiction is keenly observant, as the best journalism is, and he is especially interested in power, a subject that journalists find endlessly beguiling. He has written about how power is sought, used and abused in Washington, about power and influence in the press itself, about power as it materializes in human relationships. He is an astute observer of politics and politicians (Adlai Stevenson plays a cameo role in An Unfinished Season, and plays it beautifully) but to the best of my knowledge has never ground a partisan or ideological ax in his writing. He is fascinated by the ordinary humanity behind the apparatus of power, and explores it with utterly unsentimental sympathy.
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Every once in a while — not often, for sure — an author does a reviewer a favor and writes a book with such elegance, élan and acuity that the only way to review it — to give readers some sense of the pleasures that await them in it — is to quote from it, at length and with gratitude. John Gregory Dunne did that a couple of months ago with another novel about the heartland, Nothing Lost; now Ward Just does it with An Unfinished Season. A beautiful, wise book.