New novel by Ward Just: “Rodin’s Debutante”

“Rodin’s Debutante” by Ward Just, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston-New York, March 1, 2011. $26. Available at Island bookstores.

Neither the French sculptor Rodin nor a debutante inhabit the familiar feeling landscape of Ward Just’s 17th novel “Rodin’s Debutante.”

Mr. Just, a West Tisbury resident, has written another coming-of-age story that has parallels to his Pulitzer Prize finalist “An Unfinished Season,” published in 2004. Both are stories about boys growing up through the 1940s and ’50s, in small towns outside of Chicago. Chicago is the emotional hub of both novels. Growing up, establishing a moral and an intellectual base, happens in the satellite rural/urban towns around Chicago, and the maturing occurs in the big city in both books.

Mr. Just’s masterfully crafted “Rodin’s Debutante” begins early in the 20th century with the story of a wealthy ne’er-do-well son of a 19th century railroad man from just outside of Chicago who prefers little but hunting and long weekends at a local cathouse. On the eve of World War II in what seems to be knee-jerk reaction to his paramour’s desire to have a bust of herself sculpted by the famous Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), similar to one of another woman that sits on a shelf in the house, the boorish Tom Ogden unexpectedly decides to convert his lavish country estate into a private school, Ogden Hall School for Boys. He hopes his school will help eliminate the area’s dependence on New York, London, and Boston and the control he believes they have on the midwest.

Jumping in time to after the War, the story picks up with the young Lee Goodell, the son of a judge and one of a small group of town fathers who shape and control the politics of New Jesper, Ill., a Lake Michigan shore town. New Jesper, the home of Lee’s father and grandfather, was a prosperous mill town, not unlike many New England towns, until the end of the Second World War.

Lee’s safe, middle-class childhood has a few defining bumps: one an eventful encounter with a railroad bum; another, eavesdropping on a meeting of “the Committee,” his father’s surreptitious governing group, while planning the well-intentioned suppression of the story of a heinous sex crime against one of his school classmates.

With the discomfort of the new reality in New Jesper, Lee’s family moves from the small languishing mill town to a suburban Chicago, upscale beachfront community. Lee soon heads off to prep school, Ogden Hall.

Lee is a good student and does well, and a few more defining moments occur at school. After Ogden Hall, he attends the University of Chicago, settling in to the city’s vibrant and sometimes violent South Side. His life becomes fashioned not only by his intellectual experiences at school but also by his encounters with the reality of everyday Chicago life: its hard knocks, politics, and art. He becomes involved in a community service project for a short while, becoming a sculptor and falling in love.

The subtle, prevailing inertial force of the political landscape is the underlying current that moves most of Mr. Just’s stories. It is the unspoken politics of the 20th century, the ever-enabling or stifling economics, that push his stories and give them a historical basis that compliment his vivid re-creations of another period.

There is a prevailing emotional tension in his stories that mostly defies description. It is perhaps the tension of living, of life, as a constant dialectic between the individual and the rest of the world.

Whatever it is, I find him a joy to read. He is a master at creating moods and atmosphere, and interesting characters. Mr. Just does not attempt to spout out the answers, but he lays out the story with beautifully crafted sentences and paragraphs. He uses sentences as though they were fine jewels, at their best when presented subtly and well polished.

This book is about a period in time that many of us experienced, not so long ago in years and perhaps not that far removed from the situations that the young find themselves facing today.

Author’s Talk with Ward Just, 7:30 pm, Saturday, April 30, Bunch of Grapes Bookstore, Vineyard Haven. The author will discuss “Rodin’s Debutante.” 508-693-2291.