Rodin's Debutante by Ward Just
Chicago has functioned as something like a black hole in northern Illinois since the dawn of the 20th century. All roads lead there, all commerce ultimately winds up there, the young and talented flock there, and dozens of small, sleepy towns lose more of themselves to the city on the lake with each passing year. That tension between small town and devouring city furnishes the backdrop for Rodin’s Debutante, Ward Just’s sprawling 15th novel. Rodin’s Debutante follows the maturation of Lee Goodell from schoolboy in the fictional northern Illinois hamlet of New Jesper, through his prep school days at Ogden Hall under the gaze of the eponymous bust of an unnamed Chicago girl, his further education at the University of Chicago, and blossoming as an up-and-coming sculptor in Hyde Park.
The novel is far more than a conventional Bildungsroman, however. It is, above all, Just’s paean to his native part of the country and to a city he clearly loves. His descriptions of New Jesper and its environs are highly lyrical in their evocations of flat earth, decaying mills, oak-lined avenues, and the quintessentially Midwestern admixture of German, Scandinavian, and Polish immigrant experiences. Equally compelling is Just’s portrait of mid-century Chicago. He takes the reader on a tour of the gritty South Side, where Lee establishes his sculpture studio in a basement, and where two knife-wielding teenagers assault him one night. Later in the novel, his sculpture is auctioned off at a penthouse party along glitzy Lake Shore Drive. Just here continues to show his mastery of the vignette, capturing in a page or two the absolute essence of a place -- describing the blues and laughter pouring out of a window on the South Side, or wryly noting that a Panama hat seemed to be de rigueur in the world of penthouses and limousines. “Chicago’s alive, you see. Chicago doesn’t wait for permission. It takes what it wants when it wants it,” as a minor character tells Lee.
Just’s fascination with location, however, involves the concept of milieu more than just physical place. Wherever Lee finds himself in the novel, from New Jesper to Hyde Park, he is at all times aware or in the process of becoming aware of the intricacies of the social hierarchy and environment in which he finds himself. When a classmate of Lee’s is brutally raped in the school gym, the individuals who really run the town -- the mayor, the newspaper publisher, the police chief, the principal, and an industrialist -- hastily gather in the study of Lee’s father, the town magistrate to determine a public response that best protects the town’s sleepy character. Even young Lee, eavesdropping, recognizes that these men known informally as “the Committee” form the nexus of civic and economic power in New Jesper.
Similarly, once Lee is in Chicago proper -- first as a university student, and then while attempting to sell his work -- the confluence of location and hierarchy intrude upon his every action. Ellis and Howard, two elderly men who live in the neighborhood where Lee sets up his studio, tell him patiently that both the attack on him and the unlikelihood of its repetition involve becoming “part of the neighborhood” -- the neighborhood acquiring a tangibility analogous to “the Committee.” “The neighborhood will see to it you are not disturbed so long as you keep things to yourself. We all mind our own business here and in that way we all get along,” they tell him. Just’s keen eye for the social intricacies that accompany a particular location extend as well to the more upscale parts of the city, noting that “the apartments on Lake Shore Drive would surely exact a kind of revenge, something unexpected. A messiah complex or altitude sickness…”
Yet despite the utter brilliance of many of Just’s descriptions, from brothels to inner-city clinics to Lee’s experience carving marble, reading Rodin’s Debutante is something like visiting Chicago for the first time -- no matter how much you marvel at the unique charm and beauty of each neighborhood, you leave without any conception of how they all fit together, how the city functions as a whole. And it’s in this sense that “sprawling” isn’t necessarily complimentary; because in most aspects, this is a Bildungsroman, yet one reaches the novel’s end able to recount Lee Goodell’s biographical trajectory without quite being able to say what changed inside him to propel him toward adulthood and maturity. Just tells us often that Goodell realizes something for the first time -- that adulthood is a messy and complex affair, that finding a place within one’s milieu is critical to maturation, that the creative process can be all-consuming and is best pursued with integrity -- yet the reader never gets the impression that Lee’s character has undergone any sort of transformation. He remains the same high-minded, introverted, morally irreproachable kid Just introduces toward the novel’s beginning.
Beyond that even, there are a number of puzzling narrative moves Just makes, seemingly without justification and to no noticeable effect. The entire novel is written in third-person omniscient point of view, with the exception of 24 pages toward the novel’s end that shift suddenly to Lee’s first-person perspective. The effect is jarring and serves no narrative purpose. Moreover, there are a number of conversations in the book that draw in contemporary political debate for no reason other than to pound home the precise era in which the action takes place. At Lee’s wedding toward the novel’s end, just to cite one example among many, Just has Lee’s father and the father of Lee’s fiancée argue about the upcoming Eisenhower vs. Adlai Stevenson (round 1) presidential election -- which is all fine and good. But to drag it on for a page and a half to no seeming purpose other than to rehash the 1952 presidential campaign is off-putting to readers. Equally so is an annoying tendency to name-drop famous writers and artists without the allusion serving any point -- referring to Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner at one point as being “altogether more strenuous, more disturbing” than Bernard Buffet, who, Just assures us, was all the rage on the North Side in the early ‘50s.
Out of place allusions aside, the entire narrative structure of the book is just… odd. The novel is divided into four sections. The middle two take up the vast majority of the novel, and concern Lee’s growth and maturation. The first tells the story of Tommy Ogden, the founder of Lee’s prep school, essentially introducing him as a “force of nature” obsessed with hunting and capricious enough to give his entire fortune to endow the school. Tommy makes a cameo later in the novel, but otherwise plays hardly any role in the primary narrative concerning Lee. The final section is even stranger. Following a summation of Lee and his newlywed’s Italian honeymoon to close the third section (which ends even more abruptly by jumping from honeymoon to Lee stating that they essentially spend the rest of their lives together), the fourth section consists entirely of Lee’s meeting with Magda Serra, the young woman who had been raped while they were both schoolchildren. The reader at this point expects some sort of closure to this subplot, but receives only an awkward conversation between Lee and Magda, and what amounts to the assurance that Magda lives somewhat happily ever after as a celibate but lay teacher at Catholic schools.
With Rodin’s Debutante, Ward Just has crafted a number of extremely lovely pearls -- unfortunately, there’s just no discernible string to tie them all together.
Rodin’s Debutante by Ward Just
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt