A Parallax View

Jack Fuller and the View from the Midwest

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The novelist concerned with the culture of a particular city at a particular time is a familiar figure. To find a home in the market for fiction, often such authors have resorted to crime.  Among the several that I have read with enthusiasm over the years are Dorothy Sayers, on London in the 1920s; Rex Stout, on New York in the ’30s, Raymond Chandler, on Los Angles in the ’40s; and George Higgins, on Boston in the ’70s.

With respect to Washington, D.C., I have two favorite authors, Ward Just and Jack Fuller, not that either writes about crime, or at least crime per seJust, 81, of Martha’s Vineyard and Paris, is, I think, pretty well known. A famous war correspondent in the 1960s, he quit The Washington Post in 1969 to write fiction, when the sale of his family’s newspapers in northern Illinois provided the means to an independent living. He has since published seventeen novels and three collections of short stories and a play. Most of Just’s stories are about Americans’ participation in the Cold War, one way or another; four are about his native Illinois.  Today I am writing about Fuller.

Born in Chicago, in 1946, to a newspaperman father and a mother whose father had gone to prison during the Great Depression charged with fraud after the failure of his small-town bank, Fuller graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He worked for Chicago’s City New Bureau, the Chicago Daily News, and Pacific Stars and Stripes, before completing Yale Law School, and thereafter for a time, worked at The Washington Post.

During the administration of President Gerald Ford, Fuller worked as a special assistant to US Attorney General Edward Levi, disentangling responsibilities and relationships between the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency that had been aggravated by the Watergate affair. In 1976, he joined the Chicago Tribune, rising steadily to become editorial page editor, editor, publisher, and, eventually, the executive who negotiated Tribune Company’s acquisition of Times-Mirror Co., which published the Los Angeles Times, The Baltimore Sun, Newsday and the Hartford Courant.

Along the way he won a Pulitzer Prize, published two books on journalism and edited Restoring Justice, a volume of Edward Levi’s speeches as Attorney General.  Today he is a trustee of the University of Chicago and a member of the board of directors of the John D. and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation.

From early on in his career, Fuller has also been a novelist. Convergence: A Novel of Entrapment in the Deadly Game of Espionage, appeared in 1982; Fragments, about two veterans whose friendship is shattered by their service in Vietnam, in 1984; Mass, an intergenerational story of the origins of the Cold War (and prequel of sorts to a trilogy he had begun) in 1985; Our Fathers’ Shadows, a meditation on marriage and adoption, in 1987; The Best of Jackson Payne, an ingenious account of the civil rights revolution seen through the prism of an African-American jazz musician and his white biographer, in 2000; and Abbeville, a re-telling of the experiences of his maternal grandfather, and various familial consequences cascading down through the years, seemingly all the way to 2008, the year in which the book appeared. .

It is, however, the appearance next month of his third Washington novel that has Fuller in the news.  One from Without (Unbridled Books) completes the trilogy that began with Convergence, and continued with Legends’ End. The central character in each book is a shadowy director of counterintelligence for the CIA, closely modelled on James Jesus Angleton, who resigned abruptly from the CIA on Christmas Eve, 1974.  Like Angleton, Ernest Fisherman is a scholar of Ezra Pound, and a fan of literary critic William Empson, author of Seven Types of Ambiguity.  As much as Angleton, Fisherman is a fanatic, with a tendency towards mystification.

In One from Without, the Fisherman story becomes part of a frame tale. (The title is take from some lines of poet Tomas Tranströmer: “Two truths approach each other. One comes from within, one comes from without – and where they meet you have a chance to catch a look at yourself.”) Fuller’s protagonist is Tom Rosten, a onetime Yale undergraduate English major, recruitedy by a professor to the CIA and apprenticed to Fisherman for a time. Rosten long ago left the government in disgust; he has become the chief financial officer of a venerable Chicago database company whose chief executive is contemplating the unfriendly acquisition of a surging analytics firm.

The story of Fisherman’s resignation, if you can call it what happens in Fuller’s book a resignation, is told as a flashback in the middle third of the book. The telling of it is sufficient to break up the nascent rekindling of an interrupted romance. The Cold War itself has been superseded by globalization, war in the Middle East, and the dot.com craze.  As with his other novels, Fuller brings alive a populous cast of supporting characters.  I no longer care as much about the various national security operatives he deploys, but I remain deeply interested in the interaction of corporate teams.  Is that you, Donald Rumsfeld, running old Domes & Day, Inc.?

After forty years of reading mostly economics, I find my once-substantial appetite for print fiction has been worn to a nub. I no longer hunger for the background knowledge that novels can supply. Reading itself is more of a chore. My thirst for narrative is as great as ever: I watch movies whenever I can, and occasionally find time to catch up on a season of one of the high-quality television serials (The Sopranos, The Wire) in which we are awash. But by far the greater part of my attention is elsewhere, focused this week, for instance, on the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, where the quixotic president Neel Kashkari has been tilting with the financial industry in general and former Fed chairman Ben Bernanke in particular.

Ward Just grew up on Chicago’s North Shore; he has lived his adult life in the East. Fuller grew up on the city’s South Side; he has spent his life in Chicago. I suppose it is Just whom critics will elevate with the passage of time to the level of Edith Wharton, Ford Madox Ford, and Theodore Dreiser. They will be missing something important if they overlook Fuller’s Midwestern parallax view.