What’s Old is New

30 Dec

As these things go, I found myself wondering why the eternally ridiculous ‘idea’ (for lack of a better word) of the pet rock was, back some years ago, commercially successful. I mean, people were not only amused but actually shelled money (a striking example of the worthlessness of money) for these absurdities. Some time ruminating on this 20th century moment led me to conclude, for the moment, that no good could come out of any answers I might settle on—isn’t that the way it is. To paraphrase Texas Ranger manager Ron Washington, “That’s the way thinking do.”

And so, on to richer contemplation.

Of the voluminous book deliveries I receive each day , each week, many of the titles are known to me in some aspect—author, subject, someone’s recommendation, something. Some are advance reading copies , some are the finished copies. Unsystematically and idiosyncratically I examine all of these books and many I sample in some way. Which brings me to the case of Ward Just.

Rodin’s Debuitante (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) Just’s 17th novel since 1970 will be published in the Spring of the new year. I picked up my newly received advance edition (ARC) and recalled, as I was being drawn in by Just’s masterful prose, that I have over the years enjoyed his novels. And further thinking about Ward Just put me in mind of the late, lamented Fredrick Busch of whom I was a devoted reader and with whom I had the pleasure of speaking with four or five times.

Busch, by any measure, was a complete literary person. He taught literature and writing at Colgate University for almost 40 years. He published a couple of dozen books, of which two handfuls were novels. He won awards and accolades and even had a best seller – Girls. For my part I saw Busch’s writing as something I could dependably pick up with confidence with which I would be satisfied — time well spent. I especially like one of Busch’s later novels North (Random House) which was a sequel to Girls and drew me in via the protagonist’s relationship with his black Labrador. A small, but mighty feature.

As it turns out Busch and Ward Just were friends. Which when I recalled that tidbit, put me to thinking that they were taxonomically the same kind of writer. Skillful, sure-handed story tellers who fabricated enthralling narratives with creditable, plausible characters. Not much trendy or flashy. In Just’s new opus, the story begins on the eve of the US entry into the Great War, in a small town (today it would be called suburb) north of Chicago and zig-zags to the magical haunts of the Hyde Park (southside) section of Chicago, home to that greatly underestimated institution, The University of Chicago.

The cast of characters (even the bit players are memorable) are headed by Tommy Odgen, plutocrat and sybarite (he is well regarded at the brothel he patronizes) and Lee Goodell, graduate of the boy’s school Odgen establishes and funds. Goodell ends up at the University of Chicago but he really wants to be a sculptor. So, in case you wondered, the book’s title’s reference to the great French sculptor is not a caprice.

In addition to forming engaging characters , Just’s other worthy accomplishment in this story is to understand and present the political and cultural codes (specific to) Chicago operated under. And so Chicago becomes a character — a pretty interesting one ( and I am not just saying that because its where I grew up)

Just ends Rodin’s Debutante:

Odgen Hall was a vanished civilization. Somewhere in the incinerated ruins were homely items from the kitchen and the dining hall and the transcripts of a thousand students and the remains of two thousand leather-bound books and deep in the ashes, Rodin’s beautiful debutante, the marble scorched but surely intact. Lee imagined her excavated years from now, sometime late in the next century, recognizably a bust from Rodin’s hand—and the story would end there…

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