I am always impressed when I find a book that manages to be completely engrossing while still being, to borrow a phrase from Seinfeld – fundamentally “about nothing.” What I mean in a literary sense is a plot that emerges completely organically from character and setting, a plot whose crises and conflicts the reader barely notices until they are over, a plot in which daily life leads to other aspects of daily life, in which the author is almost completely effaced. If such a book also introduces me to an author I’ve never read before, so much the better. Ward Just’s An Unfinished Season is an excellent novel. It’s contemplative and poetic and honest, unapologetically slow-paced and unapologetically ambitious. I recommend it wholeheartedly and am so happy that I found a new author to study and enjoy.
The novel opens on a fascinating image: the protagonist – 19 year-old Wils Ravan – is watching his father, who comes home from work every night during the winter and immediately changes his clothes and carries a red duffel bag down to a small pond on his property, where he practices hockey. If the headlights of another car light up the road, Wils’ father crouches down behind a bench and hides, clutching his red duffle bag. Bit by bit, we learn that Wils’ father was a hockey player in his youth and that these nightly practice sessions represent his connection to the past, to his own glory days. In the present-time narrative (the novel is set in 1952), Wils’ father is a business owner who is facing the belligerent words and actions of his laborers, who are perennially threatening to strike. “The Reds” are mentioned every so often. Wils’ father is known throughout the city (Chicago) as a die-hard capitalist who stands firm against organized labor, and of course he is admired for this quality by some and hated for it by many more. The red duffel bag that he carries with him everywhere contains a gun, which was given to him by the local sheriff, who is a childhood friend of Wils’ father. The gun does NOT go off in Act Three. That’s how much of a stud Ward Just is: he’s even willing to break Chekhov’s gun rule.
Wils watches his father’s nightly ritual without comment, which is how Wils watches most things. He’s an observer more often than he’s an actor, and a number of references to The Great Gatsby in this novel suggest to me that Just wants us to see Wils as a Nick Carraway figure, though a generation younger, living in the Midwest that Nick Carraway first abandoned, then embraced.
When summer comes, Wils has a job in a Chicago tabloid newspaper and spends his nights at parties put on by the families of local debutantes. Many of these girls are friends or acquaintances of his, but others aren’t: Wils and his family live in Quarterday: a golf community that seems to be about equidistant from Chicago itself, the North Shore suburbs where most of the parties are held, and the rural countryside beyond the metropolitan area. He doesn’t completely belong in any of these worlds. Over time, Wils becomes fascinated by a man he sees at many of the parties. He learns that the man is a psychiatrist named Jason Brule. To Wils, he might as well be an astronaut or a rodeo clown – that’s how exotic the profession of psychiatry seems to Wils. Wils confesses his fascination with Jason Brule to a young woman named Aurora; her response is to inform Wils that Jason Brule usually goes by Jack. Wils later learns that Aurora is Jack Brule’s daughter – and his embarrassment matches that of Nick Carraway, who asks a stranger what he knows about Gatsby only to find that the stranger is Gatsby (this detail, among many others from the party scenes – including a reference to “Mr. Nobody from Nowhere”  – indicates that Just intended the allusion to Fitzgerald’s novel). Wils begins dating Aurora soon after this party, and he learns that Brule is enigmatic, silent, tortured, and devoted to his daughter. Snooping around in Brule’s apartment later in the novel, Wils – who loves history and knows most of what there is to know about World Wars I and II – finds what he believes to be evidence that Jack Brule survived the Bataan Death March and was hailed as a hero for saving the lives of many of his comrades during this ordeal.
This is the pattern this novel follows: Wils goes somewhere, meets some people, and is fascinated by them. Lather, rinse, repeat. He is determined to figure people out and can be extremely stealthy in doing so. Ironically, the editors and reporters at the tabloid where Wils is working tell him he’s completely unfit for the journalistic profession: “You’re the oldest god-damned nineteen year-old I’ve ever met. I think you were born middle-aged, and that’s your trouble. Curiosity is child-like. My best reporters never grew up. I don’t think you enjoy finding things out. Finding things out is for the proles. Find something out, you do away with guess work. You do away with romance. You like guess work because you think everything’s a mystery. You like mystery. You don’t care much for the truth. But that’s not what reporters do. When reporters find things out, they demystify. They don’t have to like what they find. In most cases, they don’t care what they find. Liking and caring don’t come into it, the reporter’s trade. When you’re on the job, you dig; what you dig up goes in the newspaper. If it’s gold, it goes on page one. If it’s brass, it goes inside. That’s the incentive, you see. Page one. But you’re not interested in digging, one crisp fact after another until you have a story that people will buy the newspaper in order to read, because the story’s satisfying. It’s nourishing. It’s scrambled eggs and bacon. It’s well told. But you don’t care what satisfies people, what makes them buy the paper day after day. You don’t want to be below decks, doing the digging, shoveling coal into the hotbox, making the engines run. I think you’re interested in topside. You’re interested in navigation. You want to be on deck with the sextant, charting the course. You want clean hands. And you want the wheel” (164-5).
There are lots of other passages I’d like to share with you, but the problem is that all of them are as long as this one, or longer. This is not a novel full of showy, flashy sentences – or even stark, brutal ones that are nevertheless complicated and true. The sentences in this novel are 100% ordinary – like the ones I quoted above, but what they add up to is painful and beautiful.
The majority of the novel takes place in 1952, but the final chapter does flash forward to Wils as a career diplomat living in Cypress and working for the U.N. – a fitting career given his introspective, observant personality and his editor’s description of him, above. He is married and has two sons, and his life has moved on, but the words, faces, and images from the summer of 1952 are still part of his interior landscape. He locates Consuela, who was Jack Brule’s mistress in 1952 and whom Wils hasn’t seen since that year. He feels a magnetic draw not only to Consuela itself but to anything connected to that summer, which was formative for him.
I am glad that I read this book and that I get a chance to share it with you – but what makes me even happier is that Ward Just has written many other novels (17, I believe) and is still writing. One of the few downsides of keeping tabs on the literary world the way I do is that I’m not often surprised to discover writers new to me late in their careers, when they have produced a broad canon of work and are still refining their art. Ward Just is one such novelist. I’m slightly embarrassed that I’ve never read him before now, but I’m very excited that the rest of his work is still ahead of me.