Ward Just, City of Fear

I’ve taken a break recently from War and Peace (which is heavy to carry on planes), to read the much slimmer war novel City of Fear by Ward Just. This was my third Just novel, the others being Echo House and Forgetfulness. These three excellent books share some common themes. Just’s big story is the evolution of official Washington from Kennedy’s Camelot to the Reagan Era. The capital changes from a Cold War city–whose leaders were morally troubling but tough, ideological men on the federal payroll as soldiers, politicians, and spies–into a city of fixers: corporate lawyers who instead of litigating make phone calls and pull strings on behalf of clients. The main decline takes place during the Vietnam War, which Just covered and which is clearly a moral linchpin for him. Often the shift occurs within families, creating tensions between Cold-Warrior fathers and fixer sons. The fathers have Midwestern roots, usually in industrial Wisconsin or Downstate Illinois. The Midwest stands for America, in contrast to the “federal city”–which, however, Just evidently loves. Certain parts of DC receive particularly affectionate attention in his pages, especially a corner of Georgetown north of Q and east of Wisconsin that becomes a lofty refuge for several of his characters. Vietnam and France, where the author lives today, also figure repeatedly.

I have emphasized the commonalities, but these are wonderfully diverse novels, each intricately constructed even though a plot summary would retell a lot less action than you’d expect in a fictional book about spies and wars. (Marriages and father/son relations are central.) The narration involves frequent flashbacks, stories within stories, and ruminations told with implied indirect discourse. Sometimes I think the structure is contrived as well as simply complex, as when a character in City of Fear looks up from a conversation to see a relevant event playing on the TV. Then again, coincidences happen–especially to people near the center of power in media-saturated environments. Events really do revolve around them.