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Ward Just: estrangement, espionage, and ideology

The American Ambassador, by Ward Just. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, a Richard Todd Book. 326 pp. $17.95. William North is 50 years old. Half Jew, half Gentile, and 100 percent American, he is a hardworking and ambitious senior foreign service officer who has served his country faithfully in a number of embassies. His wife and alter ego, Elinor, is a portrait painter. They have a son, William Jr. He, having rejected both kin and country, has become a revolutionary, a combat soldier in an army of terrorists. His base is in Germany; his nom de guerre is Wolfgang. His war is with bourgeois liberals and their alleged hypocrisies on matters of freedom, liberty, and justice. In a nihilistic quest, he seeks to destroy them all, beginning with his father.

In the hands of a less skillful writer, a story of a family of such seemingly stereotypical characters - and of the other principals who people the novel (William's refugee father and his Jew-baiting father-in-law; Kurt Kleust, an upright German diplomat; Brian Fowler, a lecherous American surgeon; Max Mueller, a left-wing journalist whose daughter, Gert, is Wolfgang's lover and partner in crime) - would likely have been rejected by an editor of the caliber of Richard Todd as nothing more than a potpourri of caricatures and a series of clich'es about loyalty and alienation. While it is about both of those sentiments, it is anything but hackneyed.

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Having elements of the writings of John le Carr'e and Joseph Conrad, ``The American Ambassador,'' whose plot takes the reader to Germany, France, the United States, and Africa, can be read at several levels. It is a gripping mystery about espionage, terrorism, and murder; it is a poignant study in the psychology of estrangement. It is also a commentary on democracy, the third world, and the clash of contemporary ideologies.

Perhaps what is most striking about this Ward Just novel is that, like his others, it has a ring of verisimilitude. From the ``Prologue,'' written in Wolfgang's voice, through the book's four parts, one gets to know each of the characters and to find that they are, somehow, familiar. Their loves and hatreds are very real, so real that the denouement is frighteningly predictable.

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