Slow and lyrical. Not a lot happens and most of the book is in the characters' heads rather than external action, but the story is thoughtful and melancholy.
This is my favorite Ward Just novel so far and I am so glad that I still have a few more to go. The story describes the life of Harry Sanders, a young American foreign service officer in Vietnam who becomes involved in an ill-fated mission of parley with an enemy officer that nearly destroys him. Harry picks up the pieces and settles into a fairly comfortable diplomatic life from which he eventually retires. The key to the tale, however, is in what is missing, and what cannot be said.
Near the end of the book, Harry converses with a French admiral and reminisces about his early life in Connecticut spent surrounded by politicians and generals. "As they were talking there would come a moment when their voices trailed off and any attentive listener would know they were deep in their memories, pondering what they were unable - not unwilling but unable - to say aloud."
The attentive reader of American Romantic will also find that there is much that is left unwritten in this tale. Harry is introspective, yet there are missing pieces in his narrative - thoughts in the margins or between the lines that remain hidden even to him ... memories he stuffs into the "burn bag" rather than filing away in the archive.
Early on he is asked if he is "good at keeping secrets."
Need-to-know, Harry said.
Need-to-know, the ambassador replied. And no one does.
The real pleasure in reading this book comes from the exploration of this negative space - the experiences that Harry (and Just) feel we don't "need to know" and yet are there anyway, lurking under the surface, indiscernible like a black cat in a dark room.
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