In his 19th novel, “The Eastern Shore,” Ward Just examines the life of newspaper editor Ned Ayers as he grapples with hard truths over the course of his six-decade career. The novel is at once a lament for a lost, golden age of journalism, an attack on the misplaced nostalgia that gives rise to such feelings, and a rebuke to an industry that risks losing its conscience by fetishizing objectivity and abandoning discretion.
Growing up in humdrum Herman, Ind., Ned saw the news as a way to define himself apart from his critical father, a local judge. Journalism, according to his father, “was a convenient way of avoiding civic responsibility. Much more convenient to write about a problem than actually devise a solution.”
Though he had no desire to follow in his father’s footsteps, Ned finds that life as an editor means sitting in judgment of others — and that his rulings can have serious repercussions.
When working as the city editor at his hometown paper, a story comes across his desk about a local haberdasher, William Grant. It reveals that he is actually William Kelly, a convicted murderer who, after serving seven years in prison, changed his identity and embarked upon a new life as an entrepreneur and family man. The story gives Ned pause, even though it eschewed sensationalism and even tried to spin the revelation positively. “This one had trouble written all over it even if all the facts were scrupulously accounted for.” Yet, despite these misgivings and the protests of Grant himself, it is allowed to run in the paper under the rationale that such a story is in the public interest. The aftermath proves devastating to all involved.
The case haunts Ned throughout his long career: “Had the ethics of journalism been violated? And by the way, what precisely were those ethics?” There’s no simple answer — just a lesson that Ned tries to impart to his reporters when they lose sight of the power they wield. “Secrets were a necessity,” Ned’s publisher tells him, later in life, “for people and governments both. When everything is known, nothing is safe.”
It’s a provocative statement in today’s world, where some believe in the inherent virtuousness of radical transparency, and a cavalcade of hacks and leaks expose the inner workings of government — as well as the private lives of those considered to be public figures. The blurry line between what constitutes news and what constitutes gossip, or a violation of privacy, troubles Ned throughout his career.
Just’s style has at times been compared to Hemingway’s, and the influence is seen clearly in the clipped, staccato rhythm of his prose. Thematically, however, “The Eastern Shore” bears a resemblance to the later works of his contemporary, Philip Roth, with its elegiac tone and depiction of a learned, literary figure coming to grips with the unsatisfying end of his own story.
As an editor, Ned’s life work is unnoticed, intangible. “Editing was as invisible as the work of a careful tailor,” he muses. “[R]eaders never saw the edit. . . . The edit was the live heart beating against the skin, essential yet concealed, crafted to endure. It was the mirror of the sea.”
Similarly, Ned himself has a tendency to fade into the background of his own story. Save for his adolescence in Herman and his lonely retirement in a decaying manor house on the titular Eastern Shore of Maryland, he’s rarely the center of action. Just paints a bleak portrait of a man who has decided to live his life as an observer — a person who fancies himself a man of the world, and yet never sees fit to play a part in it.
Throughout the novel, we learn far more about the glittering personalities that surround Ned, seen through his eyes: Elaine Ardmore, Ned’s lover, who leaves him to see the world; Gus Harding, a no-nonsense, shoe-leather reporter who sets the Grant affair in motion; Milo Passarel, Ned’s worldly Washington, D.C., publisher who waxes philosophically about the industry’s decline. It’s hardly a surprise that when Ned sets out to write his memoirs, he finds himself thinking mostly of other people’s stories — for he has none of his own. “In time, he would fade away like an old photograph, soft around the edges.”
“The Eastern Shore” poses difficult questions about our responsibility to the truth and to ourselves. It offers no easy answers, but much to ponder — the hallmark of a compelling tale.
THE EASTERN SHORE
By Ward Just
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 200 pp., $25Michael Patrick Brady, a writer from Boston, can be reached at mike@
michaelpatrickbrady.com. Follow him on Twitter @michaelpbrady.