Ward Just's latest: compelling, profound

May 26, 2002|By Craig Nova | By Craig Nova,Special to the Sun

The Weather in Berlin, by Ward Just. Houghton Mifflin Company. 305 pages. $24.

Ward Just is an American novelist of the first rank, and while his reputation is substantial, it comes nowhere near suggesting the scale of his talent and the fact that his work is so far beyond most other novelists' as to put his him in another, more lofty realm altogether. The only mystery is why this is not accepted as a general truth. As it stands now, those in the know have been enjoying his books for years, although enjoying is too frail a word to describe the pleasure a reader obtains from such books as Jack Gance or A Dangerous Friend.

Just is a subtle writer, and, in fact, like all fine novelists, he does something that has never been done before. One aspect of this novelty is the way his books unfold. They are beautifully written, and it is pleasurable just to turn the pages, and then you will come across a scene in which the ordinary moment becomes tense, and then more tense yet, and the sensation is one of being on an emotional elevator that just keeps going up. Then everything settles down again for a while, but soon, that intensity begins to build again. It is a variety of literary magic.

It is difficult to be fair to one of Just's novels by describing it, since it is not what happens in his books that is so important, but how.

And this "how" is a particular kind, since the heart of these books, and The Weather in Berlin in particular, is the way in which memory works.

In the world of Ward Just, the past never seems to die. The critical thing, though, is that past is invoked in such a way as to give the reader a sense of having the most piercing intimacy with Just's characters.

Just moves through time and explores the nature of memory with the same ease and power as Ford Maddox Ford (or the good Ford Maddox Ford, as in The Good Soldier).

Putatively, The Weather in Berlin is about a film director, Dix Greenwood, who made an extraordinary film when he was young. The action of this book takes place in Berlin, or at least it is in Berlin where the main character remembers many things: how the famous film got made, what happened on the set. And mixed in with the professional end of life, Dix remembers his relationship with his father, with other people in the film business, and with his wife. The plot of The Weather in Berlin has to do with the disappearance of a young woman on the set of the first, famous film, and her re-emergence in Berlin, when Dix gets a chance to direct a German Television program.

I am ashamed to try to describe the novel this way, since it conveys none of what makes it compelling. It is compelling because of the details that Just invokes.

For instance, there is a scene in which Dix goes out to dinner on the night he has heard that an actress he had worked with has died. In front of the restaurant where he goes he sees a family piling into an SUV.

A man, a woman, their kids, one of whom is an adolescent boy. The man is a camera operator who had worked with Dix, too, and who has obviously heard that the actress has died. He is drunk. Not sloppily but obviously. In the camera man's unstated grief, he tries to reach out to his son, to touch his hair, and the boy pulls away from him, saying, "Don't." The wife then orders the man into the car, using a common vulgarity. A moment later we learn that the camera man had been romantically involved with the actress, and it is then that the phrase the wife uses, that vulgarity, assumes the weight of all small, but enormously compelling details. The vulgarity is the site of a collision.

Frankly, The Weather in Berlin is hard to describe because it is so rich and about too many almost ineffable things to allow itself to be summed up. Still, it is a lovely book, at once compelling and profound as it explores the nature of the past and how it effects the future, how one is attached to other people, particularly to one's father, and how memory exists as a constant companion.

Craig Nova is the author of 10 novels, including The Good Son, Tornado Alley and Wetware, which was published in January. His Brook Trout and the Writing Life was published in 1999. He is at work on a new book and on a screen adaptation of The Good Son.

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