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The End of a Good Party and Other Stories

With the stories of Jean Ross Justice, it is moments and images you come away with, details that stay with you long after the stories as a whole have faded.

With the stories of Jean Ross Justice, it is moments and images you come away with, details that stay with you long after the stories as a whole have faded.

For instance, in “Night Thoughts,” what remains isn’t so much the middle-of-the-night visit by an acquaintance’s latest flame, but something Luke notices in the street a few nights earlier – a man and woman kissing in front of a temporarily parked car. Why are they out there? Did impulse overtake them while they were changing drivers?: “That couple kissing out here the other night: in the glare of the headlights it had been a moment out of a play, out of a movie being shot there on the street; almost imaginary, lovely and mysterious.”

“Lovely and mysterious” is a good way to describe Justice’s style. The nocturnal visitation itself has an air of mystery about it. Just why did Arnie Yost’s girlfriend, Beverly – “skinny and intense, with light frizzy hair and miniature teeth” – come to call at all, waking Luke on the couch to have coffee and talk about someone from her past? It’s what Justice doesn’t spell out that is most enticing. And the couple in the street. Do they represent an erotic vision of Luke and Beverly? Luke and his ex, Sally? No, they seem to be just who they are: two strangers kissing in the road, taking their meaning with them when they drive away.

In the title story, what lingers aren’t the parties themselves, but a makeshift séance during one of those parties, Claudia trying to reach an old friend, Julian. The protagonist, Victor, isn’t sure what to think: “It was silly, but it gave me goose pimples anyway, and I jiggled the table with my knee. ‘Vic, stop it! I’m serious.’” The attempt to reach Julian through a control, or a spirit of one who has been departed for a longer time, proves unsuccessful, as it should. Had Claudia made contact, it would have become a different kind of story altogether. But the poignancy of the attempt, the overall sad and comic sense of the scene, makes it unforgettable.

Justice’s characters are by and large kind and lonely people, and we relate to them because they reflect ourselves in their universality. Take “The Offer” (so to speak). It begins, “He was one of their best friends, and he was ill.” The main characters are known simply as the wife, the husband, and the sick friend, thus lending weight to their universality.

The sick friend needs a kidney transplant. The wife is considering giving him one of hers. This sends the husband into a world of his own, apart from her, as he considers why she might want to extend such an extraordinary favor upon a friend, a colleague of his. Could there be more to their friendship than he perceives? He is slowly consumed with jealousy, and it was “Too bad he couldn’t hook himself up to a machine, like the friend, and get this poison out of his system.”

The story is told in the third person, but we experience it through the husband’s mind. And yes, there is a lovely, random moment that remains with the reader: “Through the skylight over the bed he saw, one morning, two softly dissolving jet streams crossed in a giant X – did that mean something?” That is the Justice touch. We are left, along with the husband, to interpret this possible sign as we will.

Throughout the eighteen stories in The End of a Good Party, we meet ordinary people in seemingly ordinary circumstances, but those circumstances are imbued with Justice’s fine sense of wonder and empathy. There is a touch of Chekhov here, and that is as fine a compliment as can be made.

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