Rodin's Debutante

  • By Ward Just
  • Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • 272 pp.

Depicting a world where random violence and uneasy compromise coexist on the boundary of civilization and wilderness.

A quiet menace hovers over Rodin’s Debutante. Whether the action takes place in a small community north of Chicago or in the urban heart of Chicago’s South Side, the novel depicts a world where random violence and uneasy compromise coexist on the boundary of civilization and wilderness. Art, and the will to create art, survive but do not triumph.

Like Ward Just’s earlier novel, the Pulitzer Prize-nominated An Unfinished Season (2004), Rodin’s Debutante is a coming-of-age story, the heart of which takes place in Chicago in the middle of the 20th century. But the scope of Rodin’s Debutante ranges far beyond that of the earlier novel. In Rodin’s Debutante, truth, in all its ambiguity, is constructed not by the characters or the narrator but by the careful reader, whose understanding exceeds the limited vision of protagonist Lee Goodell and that of the nameless omniscient narrator who opens the novel by stating that “This is a true story, or true as far as it goes.”

Many works come to mind when reading Rodin’s Debutante. Headmaster Augustus Allprice, a character in the novel, references one: Herman Melville’s Omoo, in which mutiny and disorder rage beneath the polished deck of a ship. Another is Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, specifically its quiet opening, when the narrator Marlow, gazing out at the gentle Thames, remarks: “[D]arkness was here yesterday.” To Marlow, meaning is not inside a story, like a kernel, but outside, like a glowing haze. So too in Rodin’s Debutante.

The story line is simple enough, if meandering. Two set-up pieces precede the introduction of Lee Goodell, only child of the probate court judge of New Jesper, a small town north of Chicago. Lee enjoys an idyllic boyhood in the early 1940s, descending a hill from his handsome home to the wilderness below, where trains pass by and exotic “tramps” congregate. There is even a secret munitions factory, swathed in barbed wire, to spark a boy’s curiosity.

After the war, two terrible events, one month apart, stain New Jesper’s innocence. A tramp is sodomized and murdered along the railroad tracks, and a classmate of Lee’s is raped in a small room off the school gymnasium, a ruler smashed up her body. Lee’s mother, traumatized by the violence and fear that has replaced trust in New Jesper, insists that the family move closer to civilization. The family relocates to the North Shore, and Lee is placed in the nearby Ogden Hall School for Boys, housed in Tommy Ogden’s family home. The reclusive Ogden, still alive at the time, is a mythical figure, known publicly for his wealth and his hunting, a legal form of violence. Kept secret is his patronage at an exotic cathouse, Villa Siracusa, and his art. Ogden’s obsessive and accomplished drawings ― of hunting scenes and brothels ― are handled by an upscale Chicago gallery. The famous bust by Rodin, his “Debutante,” graces the school library and inspires Lee to become a sculptor.

In Chicago, peppered with more random violence (even the parents of Lee’s university roommate were killed in the Blitz), Lee is attacked at knifepoint, his face scarred in the same arc as that seen in Lee’s chiseling of his marble blocks. Lee survives, weds the daughter of a University of Chicago professor and debuts as a sculptor. His first work is purchased by an elderly woman who was a teenager at the start of the novel, 50 years earlier. Allusions to Lee’s life continue until the late l990s, but the narrative essentially ends, in the mid-1960s, where it began, at Ogden Hall. The forces of destruction and containment continue to vie against each other, and truth is unknowable.

Just tells his story in a quiet voice with little inflection, even on the two occasions when the third-person narrator is replaced by Lee narrating his own story. Character creation is not Just’s strong point, even though, with his characteristic lack of quotations marks, he masterly slides in and out of characters’ minds. Lee comes only partially alive as a person, his passion as an artist unconvincing. Only Tommy Ogden, the school’s founder ― outsized, odd, violent, yet curiously polite in the bedroom ― dominates the page. Secondary characters have greater presence. For example, Bert Marks, Ogden’s lawyer and trusted confident, flits in and out of the narrative. He is first sighted as an orphan on the steps of Hull House with a note, in Polish, pinned to his jacket. “This is a Jewish child. Take care of him.” Later, he mentors Lee Goodell when Lee interns at his law firm. In his final sighting, a flicker of a half-sentence, he is an old man gingerly descending the steps of the cathouse, Chez Siracusa.

Just’s quiet voice becomes most powerful in moments of great intensity. The reader dares not breathe for fear of missing something. When the forces of containment, who see themselves as preservers of the peace, speak, readers listen, whether these forces are a self-described committee of powerful white men in New Jesper or two elderly black men hanging out on the streets of Chicago’s South Side. Each group sets a blind eye toward individual instances of horrific crime for the supposed greater good.

Punctuating the landscape is a railroad trestle, sighted by different people throughout the narrative. Railroads haunt the novel, sometimes as examples of randomness. For instance, the Ogden fortune was secured when a psychic, who was randomly consulted, advised Tommy Ogden’s father to sell his railroad stock just before the panic of 1893. The image of a railroad trestle, the clatter of the tracks and the ghost-like echo of a whistle ― vestiges of the past ― haunt Rodin’s Debutante the way the novel haunts the reader’s mind long after the book has been finished.

Harriet Douty Dwinell is a Washington, DC, writer.

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