That’s from Ward Just’s new novel American Romantic (Houghton Mifflin, digital galley), a well-told story if ever there was one, complete with such provocative details as a cat in a tree, a meeting in the jungle, a girl in a hammock, a car over a cliff. All play a part in the life of diplomat Harry Sanders, “a connosieur of the counterfeit and inexplicable.”
Just writes about diplomats and foreign affairs with the silky acuity that John le Carre writes about spies and espionage. As his ambassador mentor tells Harry, “our business is not a straight-line affair. We deal with curves and switchbacks, the yes that means no and the no that means maybe. We are obliged to be comfortable with ambiguity.”
Harry’s career with the State Department is marked by his first posting to Saigon in the early 1960s when his covert negotiations with a communist leader lead to disaster. The event will follow him to more manageable postings in Africa and Europe, as will his memories of a brief affair with the beautiful, restless Sieglinde. Still, his later marriage to the younger May, eager to escape her stern Vermont roots, is mostly happy, and the two move smoothly in diplomatic circles. They are liked and respected, although Harry is never the high-flyer he might have been, and May has secrets of her own. Over time, Harry’s youthful romanticism is tempered by realism, he wonders about America’s place in the world and his own. Is the cottage in the south of France a retreat or a reward? Has Harry made history or has history made him?
American Romantic is Just’s 18th novel, and one of his best. My favorite novel of the year, so far.