THE MEN IN Ward Just's short stories are mostly bureaucrats. Not exactly masters of their own fate, they do not control the fate of others either. Rather than being captains of nations, wielding awesome power, Just's protagonists are State Department officials, CIA analysts, second-tier Congressmen, Pentagon warriors and journalists. They are not the stuff of political soap opera.
They are well-defined characters, though, complex actors upon whose behavior under stress the outcome of these stories depends. His ability to develop his characters into more than stereotypes separates Just from most writers of political fiction, and it elevates The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert and Other Washington Stories above most of what has been written about that city.
In "The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert," Just sketches the dilemma facing a Southern Liberal congressman, once an intellectual, whose attitude toward the Indochina war becomes intertwined with conflicting impulses. Somehow Just's congressman must balance the demands of his House colleagues, his constituents, his best friend and his conscience; and all his considerations must boil down to a yes/no decision on a specific anti-war resolution in the House. Just succeeds in conveying the sense of an individual caught in a conflict he does not begin to control, of an individual facing the question not only of his potency but of his personal style and temperament.
In other stories, rather than dealing with the fallout of Vietnam, Just draws less topical vignettes: a senator announcing his divorce ("Noone"), a Foreign Service Officer watching his career turn into a shambles ("Burns") or the crack-up of a journalist and its consequences ("The Brigadier General and the Columnist's Wife").
Two other stories in the collection particularly stand out. "Prime Evening Time" deals with a Pentagon staff aide, once a war hero, and his appearance on television. Expected by his superiors to be a good p.r. man and expected by the television crew to be a living stereotype, the career soldier becomes an enigmatic distant figure, while ambiguous suggestions about his marriage fail to shake his privacy.
"A Guide to the Architecture of Washington, D.C." is Just's most direct attempt at portraying the character of a Washington power figure. Following the attempt of a former presidential adviser to win a position in a new administration, Just suggests reasons that insiders try to stay close to power. Clearly they are not looking for material prerequisites or the opportunity to shape history. Accustomed to a unique way of life Just's insider needs a haven, needs to be maintained in his accustomed nuances.
Short story collections tend to be ignored in favor of novels, because they are more modest undertakings. And in most cases, enthusiasm is moderated by the previous appearance of at least some of the material. Just's book is no exception. The stories printed here have trickled out in The Atlantic over the last couple of years, so they have lost the advantage of novelty. But they are sufficiently subtle that they stand a second reading with little deterioration.
In a time when producing short stories is a losing proposition to most authors, stories as carefully written as these are rare. Just's talent for the genre, complemented by his access to The Atlantic as a regularly contributing Washington correspondent, has produced the sort of polished stories no one is supposed to write or, for that matter, read any more.