On the Grab


Set against the paranoia and corruption of the 1950s, Ward Just’s atmospheric 14th novel, An Unfinished Season, is a tale of a boy, 19-year-old “Wils” Ravan, and a city, Chicago, both on the make. The story begins in Quarterday, a prairie nowheresville north of the Loop. What really concerns Just, a native Chicagoan, is how municipal politics can infiltrate a working-class household. Chicago is a blue-collar union town, mighty and domineering and filled with political bombast. Distant and steadfast, Wils’s father, Teddy, faces a strike and death threats from disgruntled union workers at his printing press, not to mention an escalating cold war at home. Wils lands a summer job as a copyboy at a Chicago tabloid, and spends his midsummer nights on the glamorous North Shore, where he attends debutante parties, “two hundred of us dancing under high-topped tents with girls in armored evening dresses.” At one of these bacchanals, he meets Aurora Brune, the beautiful daughter of a renowned psychiatrist.

It’s a familiar coming-of-age narrative, a politically aware Catcher without all the alienation-speak. But what sets An Unfinished Season apart is how subtly the author infuses the personal with the political and the way he steeps his sentences in the rhythms of 1950s jazz. Whereas in his earlier fiction and in his career as a newspaperman in Vietnam (documented in Michael Herr’s Dispatches, as well as in his own memoirs), Just tackled abuses of power head-on, in this novel the politics are those of the human heart; the result is Just’s most trenchant read to date. Above all, the book is a love letter to “a noisy, unlovely city of iron and concrete, a city on the grab, fundamentally lawless, its days spent chasing money and its nights spending it . . . an unlovely city, not unloved.”