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Fiction reviews


Ward Just - The American Ambassador

11 November 1987

The American Ambassador
Ward Just
Mariner Books

Published in The Australian

A New York Times reviewer described this as "The most exciting novel I have read in a long time." He must be very excitable, for little actually happens in The American Ambassador. That's not to say it's not a very fine book. But its quality lies in its rambling analysis of American power, and of the differences in perception which arise between the Ambassador of the title, William North, and his increasingly wayward son. The Ambassador is a likeable liberal who has served in Africa and Europe. The intelligent but disturbed Bill Jnr, who increasingly sees his father's work as the benign face of US imperialism, eventually leaves home to become a terrorist.

Ward Just naturally has a winner with a dynamic like this. To his credit he doesn't throw it away by taking sides, or by leaning too heavily on "action". His exploration of the sensitive, loyal, hard-working William North is as exhaustive as that of Bill Jnr's wilful rebelliousness. It is a mark of his expertise that he makes us sympathetic to both parties - while underlining the gaps of memory and awareness which lead each to so badly misunderstand the other.

All this is largely accomplished by long discursive flash-backs. The Ambassador reflects on the time in Africa that he repelled a rebel ambush with a revolver. A hundred pages further, Bill Jnr retails the same event (which he was told about in his childhood). But what he recalls is that his father had been decorated for murdering a harmless African.

By such means we are shown how these two men have brought forth such opposite world-views. The main event in this book is the building of these world-views. The action occupies much less space. It sees the Ambassador hospitalised in Washington, nearing the end of the diplomatic road: much of his remembering is done from his sick-bed. And it sees Bill Jnr bombing and kidnapping in Europe: most of it described second-hand by CIA men to his father, or recreated during Bill Jnr's own long ruminations. It all culminates in Bill Jnr's decision to assassinate his father - the ultimate payout to America's global arrogance. This outrage has great plausibility within the context Ward Just has created, which is of an unwieldy, purblind superpower which has gone too far for too long, and which is now causing its own sons to sicken and rebel:

That there could be more than one reality in the world always came as a surprise to Americans, and an insult that the local reality was always the controlling reality.

It is to Just's credit that he also presents America's view, through the eyes of the Ambassador - a basically good man who is the victim of a national history which at some stage just went off the rails.

Bill Jnr is not some dehumanised crazy, but a capable young man whose disillusionment has turned him into a killer. This disillusionment is not presented as a fait accompli, but is painstakingly traced to its origins. Even his grandfathers are put under the microscope, and the nation's pre-War history along with them.

Just's prose rolls along like a riverboat: slow, ineloquent, piecemeal. It reminded me a little of New Zealander Maurice Gee's Prowlers (incidentally the best novel I've read in two or three years) in its slightly jagged time-frames, its rambling discursiveness, and its elliptical rendering of associations. Ward Just isn't quite Gee's calibre, however. On the rare occasions that he raises the temperature a degree - in an attempt at colour, or novelty - he usually blows it. But there is a slow accretion of strength in the deeper novelist's arts: plotting, picture-building, characterisation. If he is less effective at the point of delivery - words onto paper - it doesn't seem to matter much. The words are passable. Once in a while they are eye-catching:

The southwest wind brought the damp Gothic humours of American South, altogether foreign to the bony New England coast, Tennessee Williams seducing Cotton Mather.

Ward Just places the election of non-entities to the US Presidency in a clear context: America's obsession with outer strength, and its failure to renew itself from within. He does so with a realism which borders on understatement, and is thus all the more convincing.

About four years ago I saw a Palestinian terrorist asked on television why she blew up an American airliner. "Because," she seethed, "all evil in the world emanates from the United States." No reasonable person could agree with such a statement, but - as Ward Just so effectively conveys here - America's global reverses are often caused by the failure of that singularly unreflective nation to ask itself just what it is that prompts people to make them.

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