By Howard Fast
Harcourt, New York, 2000
290 pp., US$25 (hb)
REVIEW BY MAX WATTS
It was almost 60 years ago. FDR's United States was, with Stalin's Soviet Union, leading the battle against fascism. Churchill's England tagged along behind. We sang, with Paul Robeson, Shostakovich's "United Nations on the march, with flags unfurled! Together fight for victory, a free new world!". Auschwitz had not yet been liberated by the Red Army, the destruction of Dresden and Hiroshima were still some months in the future.
I was in my mind an aspiring writer. In body, I was a delivery boy for a New York publisher. One day I dropped a packet off at the home of the famous writer, Howard Fast. We chatted.
A little later, I read a half-page article about me! in a magazine. I only remember that Fast had written I was "short for my age". While that was true, it annoyed me, but it didn't stop me from devouring his novels Citizen Tom Paine and The Last Frontier about the American Revolution and the deportation and deaths of the Indians and, above all, Freedom Road, about the untaught-in-school Reconstruction period after the US Civil War, when blacks and whites together had built a new south, before going down in bloody defeat.
A few years later, the war against fascism was won, but our awaited "singing tomorrows" didn't happen. A cold war against yesteryear's ally, Russia, had begun. Howard Fast, Jewish communist, was no longer the "famous writer", but a "damn red".
His new books, such as My Glorious Brothers, no longer sold a million copies, only a few thousand. Although My Glorious Brothers was about the Maccabees' fight 2000 years ago for a Jewish state, it was dubbed dangerous "Communist propaganda".
Fast had insisted that these Jews were allowing their slaves a day a week off work, anathema to the visiting Roman ambassador, who wanted his slaves to slave all week.
It, and Fast's other books, were removed from many US library shelves.
Eventually Fast, as did other lefties, went to jail for "contempt of Congress" after he refused to give the House Un-American Activities Committee the names of the Spanish republican refugees he and other Americans were helping. When he came out of prison, he had been "forgotten".
In 1956, Fast left the Communist Party of the USA, slamming the door behind him. Many did that year. Some, as did the Australian Communist writer Eric Lambert (once considered Australia's Howard Fast), cited the Red Army's shooting of Hungarians.
Lambert had a career with many parallels to Fast's. In the late '40s, Lambert's war novels, Twenty Thousand Thieves and The Veterans, were best-sellers and praised to the skies. In the '50s, he too became an "unknown" red.
Revolted by the Soviet intervention against Budapest, Lambert, by then living in England, also left the Communist Party. He wrote anticommunist, right-wing novels after 1956, but in the early 1960s moved again towards the left.
Fast, if memory does not betray, was particularly upset by Soviet threats against Israel, threats made in aid of Egypt's Nasser, who was defeated by Israel in the Sinai.
Almost all those exiting Communists cited Khrushchev's report to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. They cried: "We didn't know about Stalin's crimes".
I, by then far away, wrote to Fast and asked, irritably: "How come you, high up in the US Communist Party, didn't know, if I, much lower down the totem pole, did?". He did not reply. However, in two autobiographies The Naked God: the writer and the Communist Party (1958) and Being Red (1990) he did try to answer the question.
Fast, as Lambert did, went through an "anti-Communist" phase in the late '50s. As the '60s advanced, he moved again towards the centre, then to the left. Lambert died, on the road, in 1965.
Fast, though now 86 years old, is still very much alive and writing. He has written more than 40 books, mostly political novels. His latest, Greenwich is, most definitely, on and for the left. It's a novel about eight people, two bad, six good two agnostic Jews, several practising Catholics at a June 1998 dinner party in Greenwich, the richissimo New York satellite town.
Host Richard Castle a successful investment banker was once a US assistant secretary for Latin America. He is worried. His past is surfacing, a past in which he ordered murders of US nuns and Catholic priests in El Salvador. Will he be exposed? How will his former associates, whom he might drag into the pooh, react?
Dinner guest Harold Sellig, a successful Jewish writer, has three recent best selling pot-boilers under his belt, but for years has also been working on a new book, The Assassin.
Sellig is trying to describe the links he sees between these lawful people of Greenwich and the murder of so many, great and small, in the US and its empire.
On the day after the dinner, chickens come home to roost, the evil are punished, but life for most must go on.
Greenwich can be read as easily as a good, well-crafted, yarn or, more carefully, as political philosophy about "good" and evil. Afterwards, readers wiser than before must answer the basic questions, "What is to be done? What can we do?", for themselves.