Exiles in the Garden download pdf

Exiles in the Garden

Exiles in the Garden
Pages: "Although several of his novels have been short-listed for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, Ward Just is relatively unknown to readers. It is a shame, critics note, because the former Washington journalist and Vietnam War correspondent is particularly adept at conveying the unique brand of narcissism and ruthless ambition seen in Washington, D.C., political circles. One exception to the bountiful praise came from the Los Angeles Times critic, who felt that the passive, one-dimensional characters and weak storyline hampered the narrative. Overall, however, critics hailed Exiles in the Garden as an understated and compassionate, but no less powerful, account of a man questioning his life choices."
ISBN: Exiles in the Garden by Ward Just is an excellent example of the well-made novel, though it lacks in the very theme it explores: conflict.

Alec Malone is the protagonist we follow from his twenties to his seventies. He’s a photographer at first for a Washington, D.C. newspaper. Then he becomes a free-lancer. He works with a Leica. He’s a good technician. And he is a man without any great ambition.

This confounds his father, a long-time senator who knew presidents from FDR through Johnson. Kim Malone wanted Alex to follow him in public life. No chance. Alex doesn’t even want to go to Vietnam when he’s offered the opportunity to do a tour there as a photographer for his newspaper.

When the time comes to marry, he stumbles upon an au pair girl from Switzerland, Lucia, who effectively leaps into his arms. They buy a house in Georgetown; they have a child, Mathilde; and in time, Lucia is drawn into an affair with an Hungarian writer who takes her back to Europe with him.

Alex isn’t exactly crushed. He goes on with life and forms a sometimes relationship with a beautiful Hollywood actress a few years his junior.

He also spends time with his dying father, reminiscing. In his way, he tries to answer the questions both parents wanted answered about him: What was it about him? Why didn’t he care about things people tended to care about in Washington? Why did he shy away from opportunities? He could have had Vice President Johnson at his wedding. Nope, he preferred to elope. No Lyndon Johnson. No Hubert Humphrey. Certainly no Jack and Jackie.

The smooth skill with which Just writes this novel, coupled with his knowledge of Washington, D.C. and other world capitals, almost compensates for the complacency and aversion to conflict that lie at the center of Alex’s being. Just does a great job with exiles and cocktail parties and D.C. neighborhoods (I live here, and I can assure you his descriptions are on the money), but he doesn’t do such a great job working up living, breathing characters, people who boil the way people boil, worry, fret, fight, doubt...

Toward the end of the novel, Alex buries his father with no great fanfare (as one would expect) and Lucia is reunited with a father who disappeared when she was three (living in Prague with her mother at the time, she had no memories of the man.) In fits and starts, we learn that Lucia’s father was sucked into World War II and then some form of the Soviet gulag for the better part of twenty years. He was a resistance fighter, a renegade, a risk-taker, a brute, a survivor, and generally speaking a man who lived a life full of conflict, which he managed to overcome.

The combination here of Lucia and Alex’s fathers (the senator was a tough pol) brings Alex to realize that his life, like his photographs, lacks one essential ingredient: conflict.

He’s not exactly remorseful about this and not without resources, even though he’s losing his sight. He still has the initiative to head up to Maine to think things through...still has the self-confidence to head off sailing into waters that might be more treacherous than they appear.

So what we have here is a very enjoyable, deftly written book that is superficially astute and accurate but lacking in heart, in psychological depth, in pain.

Where does this place Exiles in the Garden in terms of Washington novels? The funny thing is that Just knows and accepts Washington to such an extent that he lets the good order and proceduralism of the place dominate his text. There’s a life cycle in this city that sort of goes this way: you start out trying to make something of yourself in government and public affairs, you make something of yourself, then you drift out of the rat race of government/public affairs activities into the comforts of worldly acquaintances, reasonably good restaurants, and a hospice overlooking the 16th hole of some well-appointed country club. And then you die and people who remember you tell stories about you for a while. And then they stop telling stories because they die, too.

In this case, Just skips the “trying to make something of yourself” phase and lets his protagonist skip along like a well-thrown stone on the smooth surface of a lake. This is a shortcut that doesn’t quite work as well in literature as it does in the northwest quadrant of Washington.D.C.

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Ward Just is a very descriptive, quiet and thoughtful writer. He imbues these qualities into Alec, tho photographer protagonist. Alec is the typical apolitical American, not interested in getting involved in the battles in VietNam, or in the posturing and endless reliving of times past with his emigre neighbors. His wife Lucia is searching for something else. This is Alec's story though, as he goes thru life, not willing to engage too deeply, but trying to understand what/if he's missing out. Thought provoking about the choices we make in life and how they play out.

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