Ward Just's novel 'Rodin's Debutante': converging lives, loose ends
Ward Just's new novel,"Rodin's Debutante," tells a story of disparate lives that converge at a boarding school in the Illinois countryside.
Special to The Seattle Times
by Ward Just
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 263 pp., $26
Ward Just's new novel, "Rodin's Debutante," is about loose ends: crimes that don't get solved, destinies that don't get revealed, myths that don't get debunked, civic tensions with no foreseeable resolution.
In the book's first half, there's a suspenseful tease to the way Just lays his ground. How will the tenuously related story strands link up?
Well, they don't half the time, and perhaps that's the author's point: that we can't know the full truth about our own pasts, and often never learn the ultimate fate of pivotal figures in our lives.
The unifying thread of the novel, to the extent that there is one, is Ogden Hall, a boarding school for boys in the Illinois countryside, founded in 1914 by a bumptious, headstrong millionaire. A big-game enthusiast who also likes to pass his time at brothels, Tommy Ogden is an unlikely patron of education. His command to his underlings that the school be established is an impulsive move, made mostly to spite his grasping wife.
Just's opening-chapter rendering of the dinner party where Ogden's marital tensions and school-idea come to a head is a pleasurably caustic tale unto itself. It's followed by a seemingly unconnected story just as strong, narrated by teenager Lee Goodell, centering on two brutally ugly sex crimes.
Lee lives in a fading Illinois industrial town on the shores of Lake Michigan, and the crimes are such a shock to the powers-that-be — including Lee's father, a local judge — that all news of them is suppressed, as if to build "a quarantine against a terrible and mysterious virus of unknown origin." For Lee's mother they're reason enough to demand that the family move to a safer Chicago North Shore suburb and Lee be enrolled in a private school: Ogden Hall.
Next stop: a hilarious chapter about Ogden Hall's disenchanted headmaster and his sexy, live-in mistress who have set their hearts on dropping out and moving to Patagonia (this in the 1940s, when such countercultural notions were markedly rare).
The writing is splendid, the scene impeccably set — but you can't help wondering where the novel is heading and what, exactly, it's about.
The book continues to fracture with Lee's post-Ogden Hall move to Chicago's South Side where, inspired by a Rodin sculpture on display at Ogden Hall, he strives to become a sculptor. Here, the focus shifts to the hot-button issues raised by a white artist moving into a black neighborhood. There's a lot about Chicago corruption, neighborhood loyalty and Republican-Democrat conflicts, too.
Increasingly, the narrative goes from enjoyably unpredictable to bafflingly random. Certain coincidences and episodes become increasingly difficult to swallow. The action grows symphonic in scope, but it's a strangely lumpy symphony with an abrupt wrap-up and an oddball disproportion between themes stated and themes explored.
Paragraph to paragraph, Just's mind is always pleasurably at play. But there's something about "Rodin's Debutante" that simply doesn't hang together.
Michael Upchurch is The Seattle Times arts writer: firstname.lastname@example.org
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