AMERICAN ROMANTIC. By Ward Just. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 265 pages. $26.
In his latest novel, "American Romantic," Ward Just has drawn his protagonist so well and so intimately that we are reluctant to say goodbye on the final page.
We meet Harry Sanders as a young, untested Foreign Service officer in an unnamed country that is clearly Vietnam, "when the war was not quite a war," in the early 1960s. He meets a German girl, Sieglinde, a hospital ship technician who, after a brief affair, sails out of his life, but not out of his thoughts, where she reappears often throughout the years.
Harry is called into the ambassador's office and told he is being sent on a dubious, clandestine mission into the jungle. The object is to have a dialogue with the enemy. He is escorted, blindfolded, to the meeting place.
"Talking to the captain," Harry thinks, "was like talking to a statue" who felt that departure was the precondition for peace. End of discussion. His horrific journey back through the hostile jungle will haunt him for the rest of his life.
The novel tracks Harry's early years in a wealthy Connecticut home surrounded by friends, his marriage to May and on through his peripatetic professional life to his later years and retirement in a secluded Mediterranean village, a location Harry had chosen, because he "felt like a visitor in his country."
Ward delves beyond the surface looking at the intricacies of diplomacy, for example. Harry explains to May while posted in Africa that his task was "to understand the problems, but in Africa understanding did not lead to solutions."
May, meanwhile, feels "like an ill-mannered tourist ... come to inspect the culture of the natives."
Harry, content in his profession, is portrayed in elegant and thought-provoking prose as an honorable and vulnerable man never quite sure of his own value.
Reviewer Frances Monaco is a writer in Charleston.