An Unfinished Season, by Ward Just. Houghton Mifflin. 288 pages. $24.
It is dangerous to consider the author of a novel when trying to come to terms with a book he has written, and, in fact, in An Unfinished Season, a character explicitly advises against it. Yet, in this book the presence of an author, if not the author, seems to be part of the overall plan, and while this is an exceedingly difficult thing to describe, the book reads as though a particular human being is using this novel to come to terms with something that happened a long time ago. As I say, this is probably part of the fiction of this book, but it is done so well, and seems to be so much part of what gives this book its power, that you can't escape this aspect.
So, whether by design (as a kind of uber fiction) or just a lucky accident, An Unfinished Season is all the more compelling since it suggests not only a story, but the troubled, passionate and truth-seeking man who wrote it. In a nutshell, the book reminds me of a phrase in one of Camus' notebooks, which is just this, "a wild longing for clarity."
Ostensibly, An Unfinished Season is a coming-of-age story that takes the form of a young man's last summer before going to college. This, surely, is one of those periods which, when considered later in life, is almost always haunting. In this case, we have the account of Wils Ravan, a young man who is coming to terms with his mother and father, their difficult marriage, the tension of a strike at his father's business, and Wils' first love affair. Wils attends some dances, works for a newspaper as a summer job and meets a woman.
It doesn't sound like a lot, and yet, in the simplicity of these events, everything happens. Or everything happens, and yet, it is hard to discover the particular meaning of each event. And in the midst of Wils Ravan's romantic interlude, something goes dreadfully wrong.
In fact, this is the heart of the book, not only because of the sudden turn for the worse in romantic matters, but because this wrong turn, at a certain time in one's life, becomes an organizing principle. It becomes a companion of uncertainty. This disaster and its effect are what make this book so compelling.
Just knows how to use the correct, telling detail. When Wils and his girlfriend make love for the first time, it seems to be a more or less ordinary depiction. Then the young woman gets up and leaves Wils alone. He reaches down and sees a book, which he instantly realizes is his girlfriend's diary. He glances at it once and then shuts it.
It is this moment, in which something is barely grasped, that is at the heart of such an occasion, and the perfect rendering of it reveals why and how Ward Just is one of the country's finest novelists.
Craig Nova is the author of 11 novels, including The Good Son, Tornado Alley and Wetware. His Brook Trout and the Writing Life was published in 1999. His new novel, Cruisers, was published in last month.