Ward Just’s ‘Rodin’s Debutante’: Coming of age in post-World War II Chicago

There is a Chinese proverb that I recalled once before when reading Ward Just, and I thought of it again while considering his wistful, pensive new novel, “Rodin’s Debutante.” It goes like this: “There are three truths: my truth, your truth and the truth.”

Just, the author of 17 novels, has been a finalist for both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. He is a rarity in American letters: a beautiful stylist who is capable of writing a gripping political thriller. While his novels often have a relentless narrative power, his characters are meticulously drawn. He has a grasp of the demons that drive us all.

“Rodin’s Debutante” is set largely in the suburbs of Chicago and the city’s South Side in the middle of the last century. Chicago feels like a character itself, with Just’s delightfully economic, descriptive asides: “This was Chicago, nobility measured in the length and width of a dollar bill.” The novel is a coming-of-age story, the tale of Lee Goodell, an observant, morally decent boy from a fictional town north of the Windy City that is starting to show its age after World War II. When a hobo is murdered and Magda Serra — one of Lee’s classmates — is sexually assaulted, Lee’s mother wants to move to a well-mannered North Shore suburb, and Lee is sent to a misbegotten Illinois boarding school with Andover-like aspirations.

The origins of Ogden Hall fill the opening of the novel, a prologue set largely at a dinner party on the eve of World War I. Tommy Ogden, the son of a railroad robber baron, and his wife, Marie, are entertaining at Ogden’s palatial estate — 42 rooms in the main house and 250 acres overall. Ogden drinks hard and plays hard, though most of the playing involves big-game hunting and retreats to a South Side brothel. He is a blowhard and a bully who later counsels Lee, “You don’t learn a god damned thing from defeat.” This is the sort of irony Just loves: Only pages earlier, the school’s headmaster had ruminated, “A man learned more from defeat than from victory because defeat usually came with a lesson.”

When Marie sees a Rodin bust of a Chicago debutante, she wants one of herself for their mansion. Instead of acquiescing, Tommy announces that he is going to turn the entire estate into a school — and not just any school: “A school for boys, midwestern boys of good family to show those bastards in the East what a real school looks like. . . . I know what I’m talking about. I went to seven boarding schools, three in one year.”

Lee’s parents like the idea of his remaining in the Midwest, and so he enrolls at Ogden Hall. There he will lead the football team to its first undefeated season and — like many other students — wonder about the school’s Rodin sculpture of a young woman (presumed, mistakenly, to be Marie). Later, he will enroll at the University of Chicago, where he will fall in love with Hyde Park and with the daughter of a professor, and will experience some of the best (and worst) that the Windy City has to offer.

And, all the while, Lee will sculpt. He works in black marble, creating numbered, abstract pieces.

Toward the end of the novel, Lee’s classmate Magda contacts him, wanting to discuss the day she was assaulted. Their lunch together is, like so much of the book, an elegantly rendered and poignant moment of self-discovery for both characters.

But also like much of “Rodin’s Debutante,” it has a flatness that left me craving greater emotional connection with Lee. The book is a series of beautifully crafted set pieces in Lee’s life, but it lacks the compelling narrative that usually marks Just’s work. There are gaps in Lee’s story, beginning with the reality that he doesn’t seem to study art: He just starts sculpting when he arrives in Hyde Park.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed the novel, and it may very well be that Just’s plan was to lull us into contemplating the sagas and stories that exist beneath the ordinariness of most of our lives. The novel opens, “This is a true story, or true as far as it goes.” Lee has his own myths about his life. So does Magda Serra. So did Tommy Ogden. And as a meditation on how different my truths are from yours, “Rodin’s Debutante” left me thinking long after I had finished the book.

(This review originally ran in the Washington Post on April 22, 2011. Chris’s next novel, “The Night Strangers,” arrives on October 4, 2011.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.