Echo House CL

Ward S. Just, Author
Ward S. Just, Author Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH) $25 (368p) ISBN 978-0-395-85697-0
Reviewed on: 04/28/1997
Release date: 05/01/1997
Paperback - 336 pages - 978-0-395-90138-0
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Three generations of a family whose business is government are the protagonists of this quietly stunning novel set mainly in Washington, D.C., which comes as fully alive as the characters who move through it. In his 12th novel (after Ambition and Love) Just flashes a gimlet eye for the way the capital operates, for its culture and the secret codes of conduct its citizens observe. The Behl family consider government service their birthright. Senator Adolph Behl is denied the Democratic vice-presidential nomination he was promised, but his son Axel, returned scarred and crippled from an OSS mission in WWII, is determined to bear witness to his generation's sacrifices by devoting himself to the national good. Operating behind the scenes, Axel and his war buddies, who continue to work clandestinely for the CIA, are motivated by patriotism and moral fervor, but they are corrupted by arrogance. Sure of their moral and intellectual superiority, they pursue their sense of mission with a cool indifference to inconvenient laws and a cynical skill for manipulation on a national and international scale. When Axel's son Alec comes to Washington as a lawyer during JFK's term, he too wields power behind the scenes, playing politics as a pragmatic game in which gentlemanly codes of duty and loyalty are subverted to expedient ends, and intrigue and betrayals are the cost of doing business. Just dramatizes the mysterious subculture of the intelligence community through a circle of characters whose lives intertwine, and who move in and out of Echo House, the Behl mansion. Though the Behl men are, by virtue of their ambition and shadowy pursuits, cold, detached and secretive, they hide heartbreaking secrets in their personal lives, paradoxes that make them fascinating figures. The women they love-and Just creates some memorable characters among them-have their own needs and ambitions, which fall victim to the mystique of power. Aside from the ending, which adds an unnecessary touch of melodrama, Just's writing has weight, texture and subtlety, gravity, intelligence and wit. The result is a political novel par excellence that takes the reader through eight decades of U.S. history, offering ironic and resonating insights into the culture of power and into the minds of the men who attain and manipulate it. Author tour. (May)
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