How do you measure the overall achievement of a man’s life? It’s a frequently asked and sometimes clichéd question, but one that Ward Just, now an octogenarian, breathes new life into with this contemplative, enigmatic novel. Ned Ayres is a newspaperman through and through, driven to skip college to work for a small-town daily in Indiana, from which he moves on to a larger Chicago publication before reaching the pinnacle of his profession at “the paper” in Washington, D.C. Just’s non-chronological narrative reveals Ned as an editor uninterested in salaciousness or scandal; to him, news reporting is a careful and balanced process, the skill residing in a sense of knowing what to tell and what to leave unspoken between the lines. Ned arrives at this ethos early in his career with a single, shocking story, one that turns on the true identity of a man in his home town. It’s a story with profound repercussions, leaving lives upended in ways Ned never envisaged, and The Eastern Shore (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $25) subtly explores the lasting effect of these events on Ned, as well as examining how a man who, having been witness to the extraordinary stories of others his entire life, and having carried their secrets, must ultimately ask what he has to say about himself. Just doesn’t answer such questions directly. Rather, his accomplished novel makes the insights available for those who care to look between the lines.
Let me begin with a warning: if you hear Colombian writer and think magic realism, Reputations (Riverhead, $25) is not what you’re thinking. This is more like what might happen if a magic-realist hand lifted Philip Roth from Newark, New Jersey, and dropped him in the mountainous suburbs of Bogotá. Juan Gabriel Vásquez, author of The Sound of Things Falling, is considered one of Colombia’s great contemporary writers, and for good reason—his writing is as emotionally and politically acute as it gets, with some Rothian swagger thrown in. The protagonist of Reputations is a man who’s losing his swagger. Javier Mallarino is a revered political cartoonist, an artist who’s made and, perhaps more importantly, destroyed careers. At the start of the novel, he receives an award from the Colombian government: his face on a stamp. He’s official. He’s enshrined—and he doesn’t like it. He never meant to be an insider or a hero, and so when a long-forgotten friend of his daughter’s begins asking questions about the consequences of his work, Mallarino is right there with her, legacy be damned.
With dark humor and a light touch that don’t entirely mask the anguish behind them, National Book Award-winner Ha Jin examines China’s chilling effect on free speech. Jin’s brisk eighth novel is told from the point of view of New York-based journalist Feng Danlin; self-described as The Boat Rocker (Pantheon, $25.95), Danlin works for an independent Chinese-language news agency and aspires to be a public intellectual, but for now his mission is just to tell the truth. JIn dramatizes questions of censorship, intimidation, and outright deception, following Danlin’s latest story, which involves an outrageously hyped novel by a fledgling writer. Setting out to expose “a lie the size of heaven,” Danlin is pressured by Chinese agents to back off. When he persists, his girlfriend is denied a visa to study in China. Then Homeland Security warns him against upsetting Chinese-American relations. Though Danlin is a naturalized U.S. citizen, he can’t escape emotional and political ties to the country he left. Similarly, he can’t ignore his anger at his ex-wife—who happens to be the novelist at the heart of his current investigation. While this may seem like a minor incident, Jin frames it within larger questions. His short, punchy book asks if journalists anywhere can be truly independent, and if émigrés can ever really leave their home countries. Finally, he wonders if it›s even fair to assume that “the powerless are more decent than the powerful.”