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The New York Times
August 20, 1989, Sunday, Late Edition - Final
Section 7; Page 25, Column 1; Book Review Desk
By Morton Kondracke;
Morton Kondracke is a senior editor of The New Republic.

THE CONFESSION OF JOE CULLEN
By Howard Fast.
282 pp. Boston:
Houghton Mifflin Company.

Uncle Sam is the heavy

At age 74, Howard Fast has written more than 60 books, most of them popular historical novels such as "Citizen Tom Paine" (1943), "Spartacus" (1952) and a quartet about an American family that led off with "The Immigrants" (1977) and finished with "The Legacy" (1981). He has also made a long ideological passage. He associated with Communists in the 1930's, but broke with them over the 1939 Hitler-Stalin Pact. An ardent anti-Fascist, he joined the party in 1943, believing, as he once wrote, Communists to be "the bravest and most skillful fighters for man's freedom."

In 1950, he refused to answer questions before the House Un-American Activities Committee and was jailed and blacklisted. In 1953, he was awarded the Stalin International Peace Prize. He left the Communist Party in 1956 after learning of Nikita Khrushchev's secret speech denouncing the crimes of Stalin, and in 1957 wrote "The Naked God," in which he declared that, as Communists, "we took the noblest dreams and hopes of mankind as our credo; the evil we did was to accept the degradation of our own souls ... because we did this, we betrayed mankind, and the Communist Party became a thing of destruction." In a 1987 interview with The New York Times on the occasion of the publication of a novel about power in Washington and the Central America sanctuary movement, he said he was "very lucky, very fortunate.... I was born and grew up in the greatest, the noblest achievement of the human race on this planet — which was called the United States of America."

In "The Confession of Joe Cullen," however, the United States Government is unremittingly portrayed as the scourge of the earth. Joe Cullen is a former Air Force pilot mentally tortured by having killed every man, woman and child in a Vietnam village. Nevertheless he becomes a contract pilot for the Central Intelligence Agency, running guns to Nicaraguan contra bases in Honduras — and ferrying huge quantities of cocaine back to the United States. His confession to a New York City police lieutenant that he murdered a Roman Catholic priest (an American adherent of liberation theology working with Honduran guerrillas) sets the action in motion.

As a cops-and-spies thriller, Mr. Fast's book will hold your attention at the beach. It is the latest entrant in the ever-growing genre of novels and movies that pits honest local officials (police and prosecutors) against a malevolent Federal Government (the F.B.I., the C.I.A., the Pentagon and perhaps even the White House) that can employ all its dastardly powers, including that of assassination, to carry out its evil purposes. Mr. Fast's plots always move quickly through short chapters built like movie scenes, and so does this one. His characters are all stock good and bad guys. The novel's denouement is a little unsatisfying — the good guys make only a dent in the grand conspiracy -but perhaps Mr. Fast plans a sequel.

What is disturbing is the political propaganda that readers may absorb along with their suntan oil. The book is virtually a novelization of the much-investigated, never-verified and often-disputed conspiracy theory of a Washington-based group called the Christic Institute. The theory is that ever since Vietnam, a "secret team" of high-level politicians, right-wing fat cats and C.I.A.-connected generals and colonels has been engaged in drug trafficking and arms trading, and that this same group was responsible for the Iran-contra affair, which involved drug-peddling and attempted assassinations, as well as weapons transfers and diversion of Federal funds. Congressional committees and a Federal court in Florida have looked into various conspiracy charges emanating from that theory, and none have been found to have merit (the court case continues on appeal).

Yet, in Mr. Fast's book sympathetic characters repeatedly allege — as in one exchange between two prosecutors — that "the CIA has long fingers. They fight wars and they move drugs. They did it in the Golden Triangle and they did it in Afghanistan, and you don't think they could have set up this neat little war of theirs in Honduras and Nicaragua and put together a parcel of bums like the contras without a payoff in drugs." Along the way, the United States is accused of having financed the murder of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador and of sponsoring death-squad massacres all over Central America — even in Honduras, where violence actually has been minimal.

There's obviously no requirement that a novel tell the truth, but someone with Mr. Fast's experience should admit that there are Communists in Latin America — Fidel Castro's regime in Cuba, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front in El Salvador and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua — who commit atrocities, enslave people and may also sponsor drug trafficking, and that the United States has tried, however fitfully, to promote democracy and respect for human rights in the region. Yet, his novel contains only one exchange about Communist philosophy. "What the hell is a Marxist, Lieutenant?" one cop asks of another. "A Russian, I suppose," his colleague replies. "A communist — people in Africa.... The state owns everything or something like that — how the hell do I know?" Before he writes another novel like this one, Mr. Fast should refresh his memory by rereading "The Naked God," his own autobiography.


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