Mimsy Review: Echo House
“You want a private banker,” Axel said. “You want someone who can get your money from Washington or New York to Copenhagen or London and then to Málaga or Trieste with a minimum of fuss and delay. You want funds on hand in a dozen cities, greenbacks when you need them. You need a private bank and a banker who’ll know the questions to ask, a banker who has connections abroad, meaning an organization in place. You’d take a piece of the bank as a silent partner. The books would be very carefully kept and cooked if need be, in the very unlikely event of an outside audit. But you’d always know the balance sheet. And there would be a section of that bank dealing with your interests and that section would be separate and staffed by your people with full security clearance. Each disbursement would require two signatures. I know the bank you want. You want Jimmy Longfellow’s bank.”
Ward Just’s story of three generations of Washington power brokers unknown by pretty much everyone outside of DC.
I was worried, in the first few chapters, that Echo House would not live up to my expectations after reading The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert. It does. This is, in fact, very much a novel-length story from that collection, populated by the kind of people who can say, with a straight face, things like:
“If only the American people were as good and competent and compassionate as their government.”
This is a story of the political elite, the very elite, one of the men behind the stage pulling strings. His very name—Axel—says that he is one of the men other men pivot around. Like most of Ward Just’s short stories from Flaubert, however, it is also filled with sadness.
In fact, if someone were to describe the book to me, I would not expect to enjoy reading it. But I did: Just is a very good writer, the rare writer who can make sad Stranger-like protagonists interesting to read about.
Washington is a town of secrets, favors, and people who know where the favors are buried.
“You’re a lucky man, to know people who repay their debts.”
And he takes his characters seriously. When he writes about the dangers of communism, the insidious spread of Soviet hegemony and the leaking of freedom from the world, the perspective he writes from is one that believes it. Yet when a Pole warns a practical man that their estimates of Soviet oppression and mass murder is low by a factor of four, and the hearer disbelieves it, attributes paranoia and irrationality to the man, Just does not let his 1996-era knowledge that the Pole is right color his treatment of the practical man’s perspective.
The bulk of the story is about the people, however, not about the politics; the politics—the lead character is, as far as I can read between the lines, part of the initial group that started the OSS and continued it as the CIA—is there only as a backdrop to the semi-generational story. The book starts with Axel Behl’s father, and ends with his son, all living at Echo House. From some perspectives Axel is the main character; from others, his son Alec is the main character; the sense of Alex as a person is often filtered through Alec’s view of the man.
There are crises, but they’re all in the background, moving from decade to decade, generation to generation. It’s a great story, and beautiful to read.
In response to The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert: Sad, autumnal reminiscences of power.
If you enjoyed Echo House…
If you enjoy Ward Just, you might also be interested in The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert.
If you enjoy Washington, DC, you might also be interested in Netflix lobbies Washington, Google lobbies press, Washington Goes to War, Parliament of Whores, Inside the Beltway: A Guide to Washington Reporting, and Advise & Consent.