In the rear view mirror, roads not taken

By Bill Beuttler
Globe Correspondent / November 1, 2009

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“Regret was not in Alec’s nature,’’ we are told of protagonist Alec Malone toward the end of Ward Just’s absorbing, richly detailed, and enigmatic new Washington novel, “Exiles in the Garden.’’ And this seems to have been true enough for most of Alec’s life. But as he nears the end of that life - in his early 70s, having just buried his father and met the long-thought-dead father of his Swiss ex-wife - Alec finds himself developing unfamiliar unease regarding at least one road not taken.

In particular, he finds himself pondering his decision four decades earlier to decline his managing editor’s offer of a six-week tour of duty shooting photographs in Vietnam on the grounds that he had a wife and daughter so did not belong in a war zone. (The author had been a respected war correspondent for Newsweek and The Washington Post in Cyprus and Vietnam, respectively, before transforming himself into one of our most keenly observant novelists.)

Alec’s decision bothered his boss and baffled his father, the latter a longtime US senator then struggling to win reelection owing to his opposition to the war. “He did not understand,’’ writes Just, “how his own son could turn a blind eye to the war, fail to take a stand, the stand being an obligation of citizenship.’’

His father had hoped Alec would follow him into politics, but Alec was not interested. “The salient truth was that the civic life of the nation held no attraction. He preferred Shakespeare’s life to the life of any one of his kings or pretenders, tormented men always grasping for that thing just out of reach.’’

Alec soon abandons news photography for artier still-life work. But not before meeting and marrying Lucia Duran, with whom he sets up a little house in Georgetown next door to a wealthy émigré couple who host frequent outdoor gatherings for fellow émigrés. Lucia and Alec have a daughter, Mathilde, and shortly after he turns down the Vietnam assignment Lucia returns to Europe and leaves Alec for a leftist Hungarian novelist she met at one of the neighbors’ parties. Alec, who had preferred sitting alone in his small rose garden or watching baseball games on television to joining Lucia next door, was surprised and hurt but did little to protest his wife’s departure.

“It did not occur to him to try to win her back,’’ Just tells us. “That door was closed and locked, no light visible from her side or his.’’

All this and more is reviewed as Alec makes one of his regular visits to his father’s nursing home. We learn, too, in the book’s opening paragraph, that Alec has a habit of “slipping into reverie, a semiconscious state not to be confused with dreams,’’ and that he is losing the sight in his right eye to macular degeneration, a condition that makes it impossible for him to drive in fog and, to his amusement when he covers his good eye, causes human faces to resemble Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.’’

These things all come back to haunt Alec after his father dies, and Mathilde and her mother arrive at his burial unexpectedly. Lucia is in town because it turns out her father, Andre, whom she believed had been killed in World War II, had in fact survived Nazi and Soviet prison camps and was living nearby in a sort of retirement home for political exiles, Goya House. Lucia asks Alec to come along to a first meeting later that afternoon, and Alec finds himself engrossed by the old resistance fighter’s stories.

Alec returns home that night and finds himself searching for a theme among the photographs he had taken through the years and liked enough to display on his walls.

“Now he closed his good eye, moving from one photograph to the next so that all the photographs were in motion, variations on Munch’s ‘Scream,’ ’’ Just writes. “But that was not the common theme, far from it. Alec stood staring at the wall of images for many minutes and realized finally with the most open dismay that the common theme was the absence of conflict.’’

Alec returns to his father’s grave the next day and mulls the differences between his father’s and Andre’s intense engagement with history and the life he chose on its periphery. “Ordinary life was a version of frivolity, redundant, and in that way [Alec’s father] and Andre Duran were kin, one holding a floor and the other a sword,’’ he reflects. “Against that Alec had a camera, used for peaceful purposes. Against that was the thought that life was not a competitive race. In life, as in golf, you played against the course, not your opponent.’’

That same day, Andre tells Alec he wouldn’t worry about having refused to go to Vietnam, adding, “Your war was an elective.’’ But Alec will still be fretting about it on a vacation trip soon afterward to the Gulf of Maine, where a sailboat and water prone to sudden fog and other treachery await him.

The book’s real tension, however, takes place inside Alec’s head - and in Just’s clear-eyed exploration, via these and other characters, of whether one can live as honorable a life outside “the thick of it’’ as in it.

Bill Beuttler is an Emerson College publisher/writer in residence.

By Ward Just
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 279 pp., $25

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