Review by Peter Schmitt
Through blood and marriage, Jean Ross Justice figures among one of America’s most distinguished literary families: her sister is poet Eleanor Ross Taylor, wife of fiction writer Peter Taylor; and her husband was the Miami-born poet Donald Justice, who died in 2004. And while only obliquely autobiographical, it is the endless complications of blood and marriage that is the subject of these 18 compelling stories, the first book publication for Ross Justice, now in her eighties (The End of a Good Party, University of Tampa Press).
Although her husband’s teaching career led them to universities across the country—most notably to Iowa—the Justices maintained ties with friends back in Miami, and several stories touch base with South Florida. In Miami, 1959, a grandmother has reconciled herself over the years to her husband’s occasional infidelity—when considering the dire alternative. And Vic, in the title story, remembers the old Bohemian scene of Coconut Grove from the 1950s through ‘70s—vivid characters, an improvised séance, a passing affair—all with a gentle nostalgia reminiscent of Donald Justice’s poems about early Miami, and with the author’s own light touch, and ear for how people speak, and think.
In fact a number of the stories begin, if not end, at a party or gathering. Typically an innocuous moment or remark in the present will trigger a rich complex of memories going back years, winding through stepchildren and in-laws, divorced spouses still in the picture. In The Dark Forces, also set in the Grove, a grown son comes to retrieve some of his dead poet-father’s books at the home of his youthful stepmother, whom his father had left his mother for. Ross Justice is adept at capturing the lingering awkwardnesses and embarrassments inherent in such situations.
Academia, as one might anticipate, forms the backdrop for a few stories. In The Offer, a professor’s wife wants to give a sick male friend a kidney, prompting her husband to insecure, jealous musings. In another type of “gifting,” a visiting female poet in The Next to Last Line “borrows” a student’s line and ends up sleeping with him. And Rachel, who narrates The Sky Fading Upward to Yellow: A Footnote to Literary History, is skeptical when her old classmate Brenda wants her own little history—a grad school affair with Worsham, a now-deceased novelist—detailed in a forthcoming biography. Ross Justice, who like her sister enjoyed a long, stable marriage, clearly comes down on the side of discretion and tact: “I thought of them sitting side by side in a booth in Whaley’s, smiling with a unanimity of gaze and an air of great happiness, as if they’d just had some wonderful news. Wasn’t it enough? It wasn’t, thank God, my job to sort out what this meant in their lives in the long run, but there it was, it had happened, with all its joy of discovery. But she wanted more…”
As does Agnes Small in the poignant Years Later. Agnes attends a piano recital to see if a child resembles her son, lost in WWII. Her desire to confirm that he didn’t illegitimately father the girl, is countered by her need to see again some trace of her son who vanished somewhere in Europe. The balance struck between regret and acceptance is characteristic of these stories, which have been appearing in leading literary journals for more than 20 years. The University of Tampa Press is to be commended for making them available in one first-rate collection.