As the image of an Adirondack chair on the cover of Ward Just’s 18th novel suggests, “The Eastern Shore” is the relaxed but not quite comfortable reflection of Ned Ayres, a lifelong newspaperman. The story follows Ayres from his start as a teenaged summer reporter on a weekly in his sleepy midwestern hometown to the peak of his profession as news editor of a major national daily in Washington. Instead of sticking to a measured chronological path, Just focuses on a couple of major incidents in Ayres’s life — a truncated romance, and a life-altering editorial decision — to tell his story.
Just’s writing is quiet and proficient, loaded with the kind of detail and perspective that only an old pro can deliver, rarely drawing attention to itself, much like Ned Ayres. “The Eastern Shore” reads well aloud, as I discovered while reading it to my neighbor Tom Mullins, whose vision has been compromised by Parkinson’s disease, though not his appetite for current arts and affairs. “I think he’s done a wonderful job pulling a few stories together, gradually introducing a rich cast of characters,” Tom said of the author, a friend and until recently a neighbor of Tom’s in Lambert’s Cove. “He assumes a certain familiarity with a broad band of American history.”
Convinced early on that newspapering was for him, Ayres skipped college, deciding instead to hone the skills he knew he’d need later on. Though he’d been raised to believe that ambition was unseemly, he knew he wanted to move on, up and away from Herman, Ind. Unlike suspicious locals who kept their distance from national reporters when they came to town to cover a juicy scandal, Ayres “was interested in how the big feet danced, how they carried themselves, their interviewing techniques.”
After stops in Indianapolis, where he learned some steps, and Chicago, where he polished them, he lands in Washington, a mecca for most newspapermen. His path is smooth, save a rough patch when he is tempted in love by Elaine, whom he comes close to marrying. But Ayres knew early on that he couldn’t serve two mistresses well enough to satisfy them, or him. “I was available, but only at my convenience,” he describes later in his life. “All those late nights, erratic hours generally. The scent of a story that could send you around the bend, a dog worrying a bone so that you follow the damned dog where it leads. It’s important.” Small wonder that when Elaine saw that writing on the wall, she headed for Africa, as if to distance herself as far as possible. Later, another sweetheart, Monica, decamps for Cyprus.
Ayres never forgets Elaine, but he learns to live with an unsettled undercurrent of sadness that lingers forever. The primacy of his work provides clarity for him, despite the loneliness of living a life that is controlled, fundamentally, by things out of his control: the news, fickle and relentless as it always is. “Just when you thought you had a handle on a story something utterly strange presented itself,” Ayres reminisces. “There was no coherence. Instead there was a whirl.”
But as dispassionate as he sometimes seems, some shadows stretch farther across Ayres’ life than others. William Grant appeared out of the blue in Herman when Ned still worked at the Press-Gazette there. Industrious and clean-living, Grant quickly worked himself up and into the fabric of the town, marrying the banker’s daughter, building a successful haberdashery. His bubble is burst when the paper receives a tip about his questionable past, looks into it, and decides to publish a story that Grant believes will ruin him. The decision to publish the story is agonizing for Ayres and his colleagues, who justify it by citing their duty to the rights of their readers. In the end they know they made the right choice, but it haunts Ayres gently to the end of his life, thanks to its sad, unforgiving consequence.
A seemingly unlikely comrade in arms for Ayres is the Washington paper’s publisher, Milo Passerel, who, though he inherited his position, shares Ned’s unquestioned loyalty to the paper. Passerel, though, has maintained a long, healthy marriage that has produced two children, to whom he is devoted. To separate the personal from the professional, however, Passerel has to put an ocean — an era, even — between himself and his responsibilities in Washington, spending August every year in a villa overlooking the Alhambra in Granada. Ayres respects Passerel’s commitment to his work, and admires his ability to keep that work separate from his rich family life. When Passerel decides to retire, though, he implies that the balance hasn’t always been easy. “What I want is a normal life,” he tells Ayres when the latter tries to convince him to stay on the job.
Toward the end of “The Eastern Shore,” Ayres finds what looks like a normal life, at least a normal retired life. He’s found a charming period house in the country that he’ll restore while he works on his memoir. All he needed was to get started, “a coherent first chapter [that] would unlock the doors to the other chapters.” But could someone who’d been driven and sustained by a cascade of uncontrollable events make order of his own life? It’s no small challenge for someone like Ayres, who “was not truly interested in the things of his own life, preferring the lives of others.”
On the other hand, he knew there was a story there, but he didn’t know if he had the energy to tell it. “The material was there but it was a lump of clay, and one fine day he’d look up to discover that it had congealed, as unyielding as a frozen block of gravel.”
In the end, Ayres wonders how important it is to record his story. Like the Adirondack chair, summing things up promises comfort, some sort of resolution, but can it deliver? Will it make him less wistful about the past, back when the future held more promise, more mystery, and professionals were more content to obey the authority of habit? His decision, in the end, is a measure of his self-awareness, a defining characteristic. Come what may, he’s comfortable knowing that he never really had any choice about the choices he’d made, that he’d slept in the bed he’d made, and that he’d usually slept well.