Ward Just’s 19th novel, “The Eastern Shore,” has an elegiac, almost funereal tone. That’s probably inescapable given its subject: the decline of newspapers, thanks to the internet, which one character calls a “fact-free zone supervised by bullies, showoffs and nutcases.”
Lest that quote suggest Just is an out-of-touch grump keening about BuzzFeed whippersnappers, he’s much more nuanced than that. He always has been. Since the early 1970s, Just has used his fiction to track the Byzantine relationships between government, journalists, money and family with plenty of grace and little sentiment. An old-school journalist himself, he’s mastered the art of intimately understanding institutions without being impressed by them.
Ned, the hero of the new novel, is modeled more than a little on Just’s former boss Ben Bradlee, the storied Washington Post editor who died in 2014. Rising from a small-town Indiana paper to the editorship of D.C.’s leading daily, Ned has been through plenty of scandals and newsroom-transformation schemes. His overt conflict is with his budget-slashing publisher, who has no feel for the business and resents reporters’ institutional remorselessness. “It’s an invitation to a beheading,” Ned is told. But being that close to the violence is what Ned loves about the job.
And that moral conflict is the novel’s true tension. Ned’s victory lap keeps hitting a speed bump in the form of a story from his early career about an upstanding businessman who hid a criminal past. (“A lie from the socks up,” as Ned puts it.) Ned saw a Horatio Alger story; the subject saw only his past needlessly unearthed.
“You’re in a nasty business,” Ned’s father tells him once the story is out and its consequences are dire. “Corrupt at its heart. A jury of voyeurs. Don’t you think?”
Ned bats away the question (“they’re people doing a job”). But it lingers his entire career. And Just knows that new technology can do nothing to make the moral and ethical demands of the job any less intense.
“The Eastern Shore” has an episodic shape and loose style that amble around these issues rather than attack them, often digressing into Ned’s musings on old jobs and past girlfriends. But if it’s lesser Just — 1997’s “Echo House” and 2004’s “An Unfinished Season” are his more satisfying novels on these themes — its nostalgic, autumnal tone is also fitting.
We meet Ned looking back to his childhood, visiting a mentally ill uncle with a stockpile of war stories. “Believe them if you want to,” Ned’s father says. “But remember, they are not factual.” That statement lasts a lifetime, and it’s one that will challenge journalists for a lifetime to come, regardless of whether they work in print or pixels.
Mark Athitakis is a reviewer in Phoenix.
The Eastern Shore
By: Ward Just.<
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 208 pages, $25