Ward Just: deserving to be read for his quality--and his memory

ROGER SIMON C

September 22, 1991|By ROGER SIMON

It was 15 minutes before the reading was to begin and every seat was taken. There were students in jeans, business people in suits rumpled by a day's work, and one dignified couple, he in a black suit and white shirt, she in a basic black dress with pearls, sitting on the floor.

It was a "quality" bookstore, which is to say the people behind the counters actually read the books rather than just sold them. And so it was a good setting in which to hear Ward Just read from his new novel.

Ward Just is, in my opinion (and, more importantly, in the opinions of others), one of the finest American writers alive today. And I am not just saying that because he gave me my first column.

By my count he has written 12 novels, two collections of short stories and two works of non-fiction. I own all but two of them and I don't know how I missed those.

So perhaps the lesson is: Give me a job and I'll buy your books for life.

Or perhaps the lesson is: When you write with luminescence, as Just does, you deserve to be read.

A book reading is a very odd thing. Few authors are professional readers, and so their prose often sounds flat and lifeless.

"Books live on the page," Just will say later in the evening. "They are not really meant to be read aloud." And then he will read from his new play, words meant to be spoken, and the difference is startling: These words vibrate in the air.

Seemingly without effort he has made the transition from novelist to playwright just as once, years ago, he made the transition from journalist to novelist.

Just was a war correspondent in Vietnam for the Washington Post. "Perhaps no other reporter working for a major daily paper wrote as well from Vietnam or with as much subtlety and grace," David Halberstam once wrote of him.

"Subtlety" and "grace" are words not usually applied to daily journalism, which may be one reason Just left the profession.

No, scratch that. That is just easy cynicism. A member of the audience will ask Just this night if he ever feels like going back to being a journalist.

"No," Just says, "it takes a different set of muscles. I think to do it really well, to be at the apex of the profession, is frigging difficult. It is not hack work. Journalists denigrate what they do. But they shouldn't."

Twenty years ago, I wrote a letter to him. I was a few months out of college and I had just read a long article by him in the Atlantic Monthly.

At the end of the article, the magazine listed his accomplishments and the fact that he had just inherited his family's newspaper in Waukegan, Ill.

I wrote a letter asking him to hire me. Then I tore it up and wrote a letter begging him to hire me. And he did, for reasons he never explained.

It was one of his ideas (and probably a bad one) to invite reporters to the daily news conferences where the higher-ups met to discuss the paper.

And I have never forgotten one such session when he let fall from his hands a series of articles that came to rest on the conference table with a long, rustling sigh.

"It's not bad," Just said. "But it doesn't sing."

How wonderful a profession this is, I thought to myself, that there are people in it who care about such things. I was young, of course. And soon would learn more about my profession, not all of it so uplifting. But there are still people in it who care about it the way Just once did. And they still make it worth it.

Just entered the bookstore wearing a disreputable gray seersucker jacket, a striped shirt with no tie, chinos and loafers. He still has a rich kid's disdain of dressing well. (Poor kids rarely inherit family newspapers.)

He got warm applause from the people in the bookstore. He is, in certain circles, famous -- New York magazine did a long profile on him last month -- but he is not a celebrity. And so I was surprised at the size of the crowd.

We all listened as he read. Afterward, people in the audience asked him questions. And as they did, I wanted to shout out: "Hey, I knew this guy before any of you. And he once knew me!"

As Just gazed around the room, looking for more questioners, his eyes swept across my face.

This was where, in my fantasy, he shouted: "I know that man! I am proud to have given him his start in life! And I want him to come up here and read from his book!"

As Just gazed around the room, looking for more questioners, his eyes swept across my face . . . and moved on.

Would I remember a person I had not seen for more than 18 years? Probably not. Besides, I told myself, I was not really here to see if he remembered me. I was here to see him and hear him and buy his book.

After the questions, Just sat at a table in the back of the room as people lined up for autographs. He fiddled with a crushed pack of cigarettes in his shirt pocket, signed each book with a fountain pen and thanked each person warmly.

I kept moving backward, trying and failing to be the last person in line.

Maybe I won't even tell him my name, I told myself. Or maybe I will tell him my name and see if he remembers. And maybe then I will see the blank look on his face. "Really?" he will say. "I once knew you? When was that? Are you sure?"

Maybe I'll just go home, I told myself. And never buy another book of his again.

The woman behind me poked me in the back. "You're next," she said.

I walked forward. My voice was unexpectedly husky with emotion. "You gave me my first newspaper job, Mr. Just," I said.

He stood. "Roger," he said.

7+ So I figure I'll keep buying his stuff.

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