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BOOK REVIEW

‘Rodin’s Debutante’ another fine dose of realism

By Joseph Peschel
Globe Correspondent / March 12, 2011

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Ward Just sets his 17th novel, a Künstlerroman, called “Rodin’s Debutante,’’ in northern Illinois, mostly between the Great Depression and the 1960s.

The book traces the life of Lee Goodell, son of a conservative small-town judge, as he makes his way amid a world of secrets and hidden sins to become an artist, eventually creating a series of statues that reflect the stages of an absorbing and tumultuous life story.

Just begins his tale some years before Lee’s birth, as World War I in Europe rages. He introduces us to Tommy Ogden, avid hunter and rich no-account who inherited his father’s money. Tommy’s only redeeming trait is his desire to create a private boarding school for “midwestern boys of good family to show those bastards in the East what a real school looks like.’’ Tommy had attended seven boarding schools, but didn’t mind not fitting in, since he’s always been “out of sync.’’ He abruptly tells his wife, Marie, that the school will be located in their house. He plans to hunt wherever hunting propels him; he’s unconcerned where Marie will live. She says he’s as crazy as a “hoot owl.’’ Tommy envisions Ogden Hall differently from the penitentiary-like schools he attended: An open-minded headmaster and staff will understand and communicate the ways of the world at Ogden Hall. Unfortunately, Ogden Hall doesn’t fulfill Tommy’s expectations. It attracts some good students, but also a plethora of misfits spurned by or expelled from other schools.

Crazy as he is, Tommy is the sort of oddball who could usurp Just’s novel. But in part two, Just dexterously melds Tommy’s story with Lee Goodell’s. Lee begins his life in fictitious, blue-collar New Jesper, on the western shore of Lake Michigan, north of Chicago. Times are tough in New Jesper, and Just vividly portrays out-of-work men knocking on back doors looking for handouts. Lee’s family is fairly well insulated, but conditions worsen: A bum is murdered. And, in order to protect the town, its elders cover up the rape of a teenage girl — secrets that lead to the town’s demise. Lee’s mother insists on moving to the North Shore.

Truman is president when newly relocated Lee enrolls at Ogden Hall. The library at the private prep school for boys is home to a bust said to be founder Ogden’s wife, sculpted by Auguste Rodin. At Ogden, Lee’s life lessons are nowhere near as disturbing as his education in New Jesper. Captivated by Rodin’s bust, Lee resolves to become a sculptor, a career that will develop in earnest and in pain later at the University of Chicago.

Meantime, he learns about winning and losing — a lot about losing. The school is in decline, its students bright, but lazy. The headmaster, Gus Allprice, the last of a flock of headmasters, wants to flee to Patagonia. Even Lee’s football team has lost 16 games in a row over two seasons. Folks tell Lee he can learn a lot about himself by losing, but Tommy insists no one ever learned a damn thing that way. Lee persuades Allprice to hire an ex-Green Bay Packer to teach the team how to play the game, which leads them to the first undefeated season in any sport in the school’s history.

Just is a realist, though, and always winning doesn’t typify the rest of Lee’s life. Lee sees death, theft, and violence all around him as he tries to fit into Chicago’s dangerous South Side, where his studio is; and, he bears a five-inch scar, “an introduction to the modern world’’ that will remind him just how wild and cruel that world can be. Ultimately, it’s Just who expertly sculpts Tommy, Ogden Hall, and Lee, scars and all, and eventually Just resurrects Lee’s distant past to confront him and to haunt the reader with a story that’s among Just’s best.

Joseph Peschel, a freelance writer and critic in South Dakota, can be reached at joe@josephpeschel.com or through his website at josephpeschel.com.

RODIN’S DEBUTANTE By Ward Just

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 263 pp, $26