What a masterful storyteller Ward Just is! From the early pages of "Rodin's Debutante," his 17th novel, I had the feeling that there would be no false steps, that my guide through the neighborhoods and commutable suburbs of Chicago would be reliable. And so it turned out -- this is a very satisfying novel. Yet I rarely was able to tell where I was heading.
Just's terrain is familiar: the growing-up years of a Midwestern boy in the 1940s and the secrets of the adult world. Lee Goodell, the novel's protagonist, is the son of a small-town judge in a conservative household, whose experiences lead him toward the improbable but somehow inevitable career as an artist.
The novel opens, however, 13 years before Lee's birth, at a dinner party thrown by railroad heir Tommy Ogden. Tommy (not Tom -- no maturity there) is a self-obsessed bully who chooses this party to score points against his wife, Marie. Just gives us a detailed portrait of a willful man. The decision he unveils in this scene to found a school for boys who need a second chance both spites Marie and sets the scene for later events.
It is page 85 before any connection between Ogden and Goodell materializes: A set of shocking events in Lee's drama-less hometown, New Jesper, leads his parents to send him away -- to Ogden Hall. Tommy has nothing to do with the school; rather, he is the stuff of legend. We readers are the bridge between the two characters, understanding the reason for the school and its traditions, enjoying a harmless superiority over everyone on campus.
Knowledge, in fact, and the question of what to do with it emerge as major concerns of the work. As a boy, Lee eavesdrops upon his parents discussing the violent crimes that have taken place in New Jesper and tries to understand the need to temper an impulse toward justice (his father's a judge, after all) with a sense of the good of the community. Just appears to argue that keeping a lid on secrets is a communal good, and within the scope of "Rodin's Debutante," it is hard to argue with him. Live the life you desire, our author seems to say. Why involve the world? I'm guessing that Just is not on Facebook.
Secrets (we are within Lee's mind) "were the coin of the realm. If it wasn't a secret, it wasn't serious. ... it was the privacy that held a community together. A neighborhood, a city, a whole nation even, and most of all, a marriage." And this guardedness speaks to Just's own method of drawing his reader into his characters' private lives. Late in the novel Lee thinks about his fiancée's indirect manner of chatting with him on the phone: "I thought of it as a crafty opening of a novel, setting a false scent, lulling the reader, encouraging the reader to enter an unknown house; don't worry, everything's going to be fine."
Tom Zelman teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.