Ward Just has made a career out of poetically capturing Washington politics and translating his insights into the printed page. In Exiles in the Garden, his fifteenth novel, Just explores the psyche and viewpoint of Alec Malone, a senatorís son who rejects politics for the road less chosen of photography - much to his dying fatherís chagrin. Alec is in ways like a Bartleby the Scrivener or Prufrock sort of character in that he is not actively concerned with advancing his career, or in getting involved in politics. He lives to a large extent within his own mind, his own concerns and memories. When we read about his memories of his father and his fatherís anecdotes, Alec is a reporter documenting the bits of his fatherís life that stand out the most to him personally. His father tells him details about some of what he has been involved in that he felt was necessary at the time but which crossed the borders of morality and legality, the ends justifying the means.
In addition to Exiles in the Garden being a fascinating look into the relationships of fathers and sons, and Washington politics, it is as much a romance novel: a story of a romance won and lost, of the romantic image of Washington at its best that has lured politicians, tourists, and exiles there over the generations. It is the story of Alecís affair with a married woman (proving in that respect that he has more stones than Bartleby or Prufock ever had) and his subsequent romance and marriage to his Swiss wife, Lucia. Itís also the story of the breakup of their marriage when Alecís career founders after he refuses an assignment to cover the war in Vietnam.
And what of the ďexiles in the gardenĒ of the title? Washington, D.C., can be thought of as a metaphorical Garden of Eden - but, if so, it is the macrocosm of the microcosm of the actual idyllic garden of a couple whom Alec and Lucia live next door to when they settle in Georgetown. This count and countess throw emigre gatherings in their garden; listening in on one of their parties from behind the brick wall that separates the two houses, Lucia longs to be invited to one herself. Eventually that invitation arrives, and Lucia drags a reluctant Alec along. Heíd rather watch baseball on TV but goes with her, somewhat like Adam following Eveís course of action. While she has a great time, his is less than stellar.
Lucia is fascinated by the languages and tales of the various exiles, but some of the more interesting ones inevitably move on, making the future parties she attends not as thrilling as the first one. Recapturing the experience of doing something for the very first time is difficult, and even the count and countess move away, leaving their house to be taken over by lawyers who are much more subdued and far less awe-inspiring to Lucia. Alec has stopped coming to the soirees already, and Lucia finds herself losing interest in being with Alec - just as she did with attending the parties.
She leaves him for a man she meets at one of the soirees, though she later returns to Washington and reenters Alecís life, this time with the addition of her father, Andre Duran, a Czech living out the end of his life in a hostel called Goya House. When Alec is introduced to him, and after he has spent some time with Duran, he begins to realize how different his life is from Duranís and that of many other exiles, who have lived much fuller lives. They may have been forced to do so by circumstances largely beyond their control, but Alec is left faced with the fact that compared to Duran, his is a life ďwhere nothing much happens at all.Ē
Justís novels are smart, with well-crafted narratives. The first part of Exiles in the Garden drags a little at first, because Alec doesnít do much of anything except to muse and ponder, visit and converse with his father. It gradually drew me in, though, wanting to see where Just would take Alecís story, if he would have some revelation about the course of his life. I wanted him to succeed, despite my initial opinions.
The novel definitely rewards the reader who persists. Just has a way of hooking your interest with his examination of the inner workings of politics and the human psyche. Exiles in the Garden is a worldly-wise novel from a master crafter of the English language, an intimate portrayal of Washington politics, familial relationships, the romance that draws exiles to Washington, and highly recommended to anyone who loves great literature.