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.