By Bruce Jacobs

“Rodin’s Debutante”
By Ward Just
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt ($26.00, 263 pp.)

As a new mayor sweeps into Chicago’s City Hall and Detective Jarek Wysocki teams up with Police Superintendent Teresa Colvin to expose and unseat a corrupt alderman in “The Chicago Code,” veteran novelist Ward Just returns to Chicago for his latest atmospheric story of intrinsically good people trying to navigate the thin veneer of a civilization ruled by politics, money, violence, and art.

Lee Goodell is a young man trying to break free of his provincial North Shore, private school roots to craft an independent life as a sculptor and good citizen of Hyde Park. He spent his grade school years exploring the wrong side of the tracks of post-World War II New Jesper, a small steel mill city settled on Lake Michigan somewhere north of Chicago. (Think Waukegan.) His father is the town’s probate judge. He and his business owner cronies pretty much run things to protect the town from the urban barbarism of crime and corruption to their south. “New Jesper would not go to the dogs on my father’s watch and therefore his son and his son’s friend could roam down below the hill as much as they liked.”

Of course, such innocence doesn’t last – neither that of the town nor that of Lee with his freedom to explore the wild marshes beyond the city streets. A railroad tramp is found murdered and sodomized near the train trestle, a girl is raped and killed in the high school gymnasium, the mill closes…Lee’s mother insists that they move to the homogeneous safety of the North Shore suburbs.

There, Lee’s rebellious streak makes him a poor fit for the public school; so his parents send him off to Ogden Hall. (Think Lake Forest Academy.) The school sits on the former hunting estate of railroad magnate Tommy Ogden. While Ogden wanted to establish a local alternative to the tony private schools in the East, the school has become, in fact, a boarding school for the spoiled recalcitrant children of the North Shore elite.

Lee nonetheless thrives at Ogden Hall and develops his self-confidence and ambition through the influence of the school’s Melville-loving, alcoholic, romantic headmaster; an historically losing football team which finally goes undefeated under Lee’s leadership; and the library’s striking Rodin sculpture of the bust of a debutante. He graduates, enrolls at the University of Chicago rather than his parents’ preference (Northwestern), and rents a small studio flat in a black south side neighborhood to practice his growing skills as a marble sculptor. That is where he falls in love and marries a professor’s daughter, sells out his first gallery show, and settles into Hyde Park as a successful artist.

Chicago Then and Now

While this may sound like the rather typical “coming-of-age” autobiographical novel more often found in the first effort of new novelist, it is the 17th novel from a seasoned and well-regarded pro. Shifting time frames and points of view ­––we don’t even meet Lee until a third of the way into the book and he only occasionally appears in the first person –– allow Just to explore the whole mid-century history of the Chicago region and the people and institutions that sustained it, and he packs the relatively short novel with a colorful assortment of characters who not only influence Lee’s development but also give his world a social and historical context.

Coarse talking Tommy Ogden sold his railroad holdings for huge profits before the highway system replaced trains, and promptly disappeared to indulge his love of prostitutes and big game hunting. His one brief encounter with Lee after the season ending football game provides one leg of Lee’s education:  “…his open Cadillac and his chauffeur, his whiskey flask and his sneer, his disdain of the Great Books, and his advice on the way of the world. You don’t learn a goddamned thing from defeat, a chain around your neck. Win always. Keep it to yourself. The world doesn’t give a shit.”

Melville’s Inspiration

Every class at Ogden Hall is subjected to Headmaster Gus Allprice’s annual lectures on Melville, and particularly one about “Omoo,” Melville’s tale of mutiny and imprisonment. Unlike the other bored students, Lee is drawn to Allprice and taken with Melville: “…his seamanship, his endless curiosity, his sympathy, his mastery of the English language, his profound understanding of the black heart, his exemplary life with its inevitable disappointments at the end. The unknown was never to be feared or despised but embraced. The unknown was life itself. The unknown made men of boys.” After Lee leaves Ogden, Allprice also disappears to run off with his lover to Patagonia.

Long a chronicler of the ways of Washington DC, Just is famously adept at presenting the complex underpinnings of political cities. He spent his early years around Chicago and knows how the city works. “City Hall loomed large,” Just writes. “The building was one of the least distinguished of the Loop, a coal bucket of a building, but appearances were deceiving because the coal bucket concealed the Hope Diamond – a political apparatus so costly, so exquisite, so multifaceted, so blinding in its flash of fire, that it had secured tenure for scores of Illinois political scientists over the years…You walked into City Hall and you knew exactly what had to be done, where the payments went and to whom and what was expected in return. That was the beauty of the city, its clarity – and balance.”

“Rodin’s Debutante” covers a lot of time and territory. Just never quite loses sight of his protagonist, but he also is not afraid to stray from Lee’s story when a particular character or scene strikes his fancy. Although disconcerting at first, this broken narrative approach, with all its nuances and digressions, becomes part of the charm of the novel. It takes a novelist with self-confidence and experience to turn the tired story of a young man’s “coming-of-age” into a profound reflection on an entire region’s coming of age. We are lucky to have Ward Just still writing great novel after great novel in a world where 140 characters just won’t do it.

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