Ward Just comes at his portrayal of the coming-of-age of Lee Goodell indirectly. The opening scenes of Rodin’s Debutante, Just’s 17th novel, take place on the eve of World War I in and around the rural Illinois mansion of the formidable Tommy Ogden, heir to a railroad fortune. Even as a small boy Ogden held an inflated opinion of himself. Just relates:
“[Tommy] thought of the winds as Homeric, a creature of the gods, gods heedless of consequences, gods who did anything they wished. Tommy’s view of himself…was that he matched any god.”
To say Ogden lacks people skills is an understatement, and Just underscores his “limited arsenal of sentiments.” His enthusiasms are hunting, sketching, visiting a high-end brothel, and antagonizing his wife, Marie. Marie learns that an 18-year-old Chicago girl has traveled to Paris where Rodin carved a marble sculpture of her beautiful head. Seeing a photo of the bust, Marie begs Tommy for a trip to Paris so that she, too, can sit for the renowned Rodin. The irascible Tommy declines. Though following the whereabouts and the provenance of the bust of the unnamed debutante gives the novel its title, it is only a minor thread in the fabric of Just’s narrative. (We are not surprised when late in the novel sculpture surfaces once again as a topic.)
Around the same time Marie is trying to cajole her husband into bankrolling a trip to Paris, Ogden arbitrarily announces:
“I have decided to found a school. First class, everything first class all the way. A school for boys, Midwestern boys of good family to show those bastards in the East what a real school looks like…the school will be located on this property, in this house, and of course the surroundings.”
At last, 40 pages into the book, we meet its protagonist, Lee Goodell. Lee attends Tommy’s school – known as Ogden Hall – just after the end of World War II. It is at this point that Lee becomes the first-person narrator, describing his past with an engaging immediacy.
Lee grew up in New Jesper, a fictional town located in Illinois on the western shore of Lake Michigan. His father, Erwin Goodell – pompous but endearing – was a trial judge and civic leader, and his mother was a homemaker. Lee recounts that his town was “built for heavy industry, a blue-collar town with blue-collar values.” He notes:
“New Jesper was a fine place to grow up, its streets lined with chestnut trees and elms and oaks…the public school system was excellent, staffed mostly by middle-aged women of frosty temperament and high expectations, though few of its high school graduates went on to college.”
When one of Lee’s classmates, a Serbian-Puerto Rican girl named Magda Serra, was raped, life in New Jesper changed forever, its innocence transformed into a harsh worldliness. The Goodells decided to send Lee, their only child, to boarding school. He enrolled as a sophomore at Ogden Hall.
Unsurprisingly, Lee turns out to be an excellent student, and he is also a devoted member of the school’s football team. Seeking funds to improve the team’s practice facilities and to upgrade the coaching staff, he meets the headmaster, Gus Allprice. Allprice has given notice to the school’s board of directors: He will leave Ogden Hall at the end of term to move to Patagonia. Through the character of Allprice, Just weaves into his novel his apparent admiration for Herman Melville. Allprice talks of Melville’s “seamanship, his endless curiosity, his sympathy, his mastery of the English language, his profound understanding of the black heart, and his exemplary life with its inevitable disappointments at the end.” Saying that the great writer was drawn to the unknown, the headmaster admonishes that, “the unknown was never to be feared or despised but embraced.”
In a pivotal scene, after an unprecedented football victory, Lee encounters none other than Tommy Ogden himself. Ogden is old and decrepit, yet he offers Lee words of wisdom on the uselessness of defeat. By this time, although it was six months until graduation, Lee, in his mind, had already left the world of Ogden Hall behind, focusing instead on the South Side of Chicago where he would attend the University of Chicago to study Great Books.
Just’s narrative continues to unfold, and by the time Lee has completed two years of study at the University of Chicago, he has rented a basement studio – in a chancy neighborhood – where he can pursue his avocation as a sculptor. He carves marble with a steadfast, Rodin-like concentration. Just notes:
“Lee worked deliberately with chisel and mallet and soon enough found himself in a kind of trance, fully focused…He knew he would make a beautiful object, but it was as yet undefined, an enigmatic block of marble…At times he felt the marble had a life of its own…”
Early one dark morning, as he climbs up out of his studio, he is attacked by two thugs. One of them slices Lee’s face from his right eye down to his chin. Never would Lee be rid of the grotesque scar. One short month after the attack he is back at work in the same location, carving his beloved marbles. Somewhat implausibly, a prestigious gallery displays the self-taught Lee’s sculptures, and they sell for high prices on opening night.
But this credibility flaw is minor stacked up against the novel’s many strengths. Some readers wonder what distinguishes a “literary” novel from the mainstream of fiction. Rodin’s Debutante, like Just’s earlier works, is quintessentially “literary.”