Rodin's Debutante

Classic works about the whiter, more prosperous sections of Chicago aren't all alike—they encompass Royko and Hecht and Bellow. But they do tend to come with certain expectations attached. The writer must acknowledge the city's culture of patronage, its racial and social stratification, its backbreaking labor. Even the most cold-hearted observer must do a little admiring too, paying tribute to the heaving skyscrapers and sturdy Midwestern values. Nelson Algren famously encapsulated the love-hate relationship with the city in 1951's Chicago: City on the Make: "Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies, but never a lovely so real."


The strange yet admirable thing about Rodin's Debutante, the seventeenth novel by Ward Just, is that its Chicago is the broken nose without the loveliness. Though its characters swan through the city's elite social circles, it's clear they're only play-acting at sophistication. The hero and occasional narrator is Lee Goodell, an ambitious young sculptor and product of Ogden Hall, a boy's school infamous for its second-class status. Its founder is the dissolute scion of a railroad baron who loves hunting and prostitutes; its headmaster is disengaged; its student body has largely been kicked out of better prep schools. "We're the skunk at the garden party," the headmaster admits, shortly before shoving off for Patagonia.


Just has earned the right to criticize his hometown, to put Carl Sandburg's lines in a funhouse mirror and call it "a city with a curled lip and chips on both shoulders." A longtime journalist, he turned to fiction in the 70s to better characterize the power plays of D.C. and Chicago political families. Emphasis on family: there may be no working novelist so fixated on father-son stories. That's doubly true for the tale told here—Lee is fascinated with both the mysterious, paternalistic Tommy Ogden and his own father, a North Shore lawyer skilled at working civic levers. Lee notices his father's talent early, when one of his grade-school schoolmates is assaulted—a violation whose memory will force its way into the narrative years later.


Just isn't much for Bellovian flourishes—his style has always been prim, almost Jamesian—but it's easy to see glimpses of Augie March in Lee, who also goes through life freestyle. He attends the University of Chicago but rents a room off-campus to pursue sculpture—and pays for straying from his social circle by suffering a mugging that leaves his face disfigured. In fact, Lee comes off as a little too conveniently naïve when he enters the world of art dealers and lawyers—his ignorance feels less like a character trait than a way to establish a parallel with the immature city he lives in. Later, his solicitation to work in a neighborhood clinic feels slightly untenable as well. But in a moment where he winds up giving a tourniquet a "little extra twist," the story finds a powerful metaphor for its hero and its city, how both wield power and how both can easily inflict injury. A lesser writer about Chicago would use it to set up an eventual moment praising the city's grandeur despite it all. Just resists.

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