Ned Ayres, the son of a judge in an Indiana town in midcentury America, has never wanted anything but a newspaper career--in his father's appalled view, a "junk business," a way of avoiding responsibility. Read more...
Ned Ayres, the son of a judge in an Indiana town in midcentury America, has never wanted anything but a newspaper career--in his father's appalled view, a "junk business," a way of avoiding responsibility. The defining moment comes early, when Ned is city editor of his hometown paper. One of his beat reporters fields a tip: William Grant, the town haberdasher, married to the bank president's daughter and father of two children, once served six years in Joliet. The story runs--Ned offers no resistance to his publisher's argument that the public has a right to know. The consequences, swift and shocking, haunt him throughout a long career, as he moves first to Chicago, where he engages in a spirited love affair that cannot, in the end, compete with the pull of the newsroom--"never lonely, especially when it was empty"--and the "subtle beauty" of the front page. Finally, as the editor of a major newspaper in post-Kennedy-era Washington, DC, Ned has reason to return to the question of privacy and its many violations--the gorgeously limned themes running through Ward Just's elegiac and masterly new novel.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2016-08-22
- Reviewer: Staff
In this clever novel, Just (American Romance) explores the journalistic ethics of Ned Ayres through his six-decade career as a successful newspaper editor. As editor of his small hometown Indiana newspaper, Ned is challenged early in his career with a blockbuster story—William Grant, a popular, prosperous local businessman who is really a violent ex-convict with a phony new name. Ned must decide whether to publish a human interest story or a juicy, ruinous scandal. His decision results in tragedy, but Ned justifies it as news no matter the consequences. Untroubled by that fateful decision, Ned moves up to editor jobs in Chicago and Washington, D.C., into the Kennedy and L.B.J. years where journalistic ethics get more blurred. He changes jobs and lovers, consumed by the newspaper business. As years pass, Ned loves his work, never marries, and has no close friends. And he never again faces the dire consequences of that ex-con’s exposure story so many years before. When Ned finally retires in 2005, he realizes his decrepit old Maryland manor house is just like the newspaper business—old, decayed, poorly maintained, and corrupted by rot. The William Grant sequence is the high point of the novel but occurs early on, and unfortunately the subsequent portions fail to match its power. (Oct.)
An insightful novelist looks at life in the newsroom
It’s a pleasure to report that at age 81, Ward Just is still turning out penetrating studies of mature adults wrestling with life’s profound challenges, often in the public arena. His latest, the story of a lifelong newspaperman whose career takes him from small-town Indiana to Washington, D.C., is a strong addition to that consistently excellent body of work.
The Eastern Shore’s episodic narrative traverses the life of Ned Ayres, whose eagerness to pursue a career in journalism impels him to forgo college to take a job with the Herman, Indiana, Press-Gazette. During his tenure as city editor, the paper’s debate over whether to expose a respected local businessman’s criminal past reminds Ned of both journalism’s propensity for the “discovering of secrets with little attention paid to the consequences,” and of the fact that “the first version was always wrong, if only slightly.”
After intermediate stops in Indianapolis and Chicago, Ned arrives in Washington in the aftermath of President Kennedy’s assassination, eventually rising to the position of editor-in-chief of a newspaper that calls to mind the Washington Post. When his career ends in 2005, he retires to a decaying manor house on the Chesapeake Bay, where he struggles to write a memoir that will do justice to the profession to which he’s devoted himself so single-mindedly. The house once hosted a senator’s sparkling dinner parties, gatherings that Ned attended. Now it brings to mind his beloved newspaper business, “still handsome, but no longer stately.”
In its depiction of the claustrophobia of life in a town “like so many in Middle America with an absence of commotion,” The Eastern Shore evokes the spirit of works like William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow. Just’s portrait of the contemporary newspaper business and of the machinations of Washington’s political class is as realistic as today’s headlines. The languid pacing won’t appeal to readers hungry for dramatic action and frequent plot twists, but Just’s finely calibrated appreciation of the flaws of human character and his talent for gazing without blinking into the darkest corners of the human heart continue to distinguish him as a writer of keen intellect and insight.