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Illinois Issues Summer Book Section

Jack Gance: American hero redefined


Ward Just. Jack Gance.
Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989.
Pp. 279. $17.95 (cloth).

Not so many years ago, when America was still king of the hill and anything seemed possible, of the more urgent debates in literary circles concerned the Great American Novel, Critics tried to define it, novelists aspired to write it. But the Vietnam War changed all that. Today, the national imagination shrinks from grandeur, and fiction writers are part of that general retreat.

How refreshing it is, then, to come across a book like Jack Gance, Ward Just's novel of one man's life in Chicago politics. It is daring in its subject matter, serious political novels being a rare commodity in this country. It is broad in scope, offering readers a vision of American life since World War II. But its chief satisfaction is its critique of the American character as dramatized in our fiction, in that central tradition we think of as the Great American Novel.

Jack Gance is a deceptively simple story for such claims. In fact, not that much happens in its 279 pages. It is not crowded with incident. Its chapters do not teem with characters, though several of them — a University of Chicago political science professor, a canny old Chicago politician and Jack's father — are certainly memorable. Furthermore, the most sensational events of our recent past — notably the Vietnam War, the 1968 Democratic convention and Watergate — receive only scant mention in the book, or none at all. Their presence is felt rather than described, as shadows across the

Like Huck Finn and
Nick Carraway, Jack
tells this story himself

page, in small but significant shifts of mood and attitude.

The narrative is equally simple. Jack grows up in privileged comfort, a prosperous real estate developer's son. He attends the University of Chicago, where he falls in love with a young German woman orphaned by World War II who teaches him something about the terrors of history. In the late '50s, he goes to work for City Hall during the height of Chicago's machine age. He spends the next 20 years in Washington, working on the staffs of successively more powerful elected officials. Then he resigns, returns to Chicago and runs for the U.S. Senate.

Late in the book, Jack is confronted with his most difficult choice. Although he has run a good campaign against a well-financed opponent, unless he can find the money to pay for all-important television time, he will be defeated. Temptation comes his way in the form of a corrupt old lawyer who offers Jack the money he needs, but at a very high price. Should Jack reject the offer, preserve his independence and gracefully accept defeat, or should he accept it, tainting his victory and leaving him subject to other men's bidding?

Readers familiar with Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby and Ernest Hemingway's Nick Adams stories will recognize the contours of Just's plot. It is an old, old story: the education of a young man. Like all such heroes, Jack begins in a state of innocence and gradually, through a series of emblematic experiences, acquires a knowledge of the world and its capacity for cruelty and evil.

Like Huck Finn and Nick Carraway, Jack tells this story himself, but readers familiar with Ward Just's earlier writing (this is his seventh novel) will recognize the voice. One of the charms of his fiction is the slow and brooding tone of its prose, nicely considered in its choice of details, almost stately in its rhythms and tinged always by a mood of elegant sadness. Listen carefully and you can hear the echoes of Fitzgerald's romantic melancholy in its lines. But there is one important difference between Jack Gance and the typical American hero.

In American fiction, the good do not die young, they disappear. (Fitzgerald once wrote: "There are no second acts in American lives.") Huck Finn chose to "light out for the territory" and was never heard

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from again. Hemingway's young men made their separate peace and withdrew from the world. And Nick Carraway's moving soliloquy at the close of The Great Gatsby, even as it mourns the destructive power of innocence, reveals the impotence of the American hero when stripped of all illusion.

Jack Gance is different. He takes the money, knowing fully the price of his decision. He values engagement more highly than his own innocence; he chooses participation instead of flight. In a nation where individualism is the highest virtue, Jack's choice seems foolish, even cowardly. But who is the greater hero: the young man who flees from the world, or the mature man who stays to change it? Jack Gance is an American hero we have not seen before, or to put it another way, he is a hero for a different America. By bringing him to life, Ward Just has not written a Great American Novel, he has redefined it.

Douglas Balz edits the "Arts Section" of the Chicago Tribune.

July 1989 | Illinois Issues | 28

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