Howard Fast and Bette, his wife of 44 years, moved back to Connecticut from California last year because - as he puts it - "my wife wanted to and because I'm very fond of her." He still misses California, though, and it is easy to understand why. It is the setting for his hugely successful multi-volume saga of the Lavette family, the fourth volume of which, "The Legacy," is No. 5 on this week's fiction best-seller list.
Mr. Fast lived in southern California for six years, but it is San Francisco that is the setting for his saga of the Lavettes, the Italian immigrant family chronicled in "The Immigrants" (1977), "Second Generation" (1978) and "The Establishment" (1979). "No more perfect city exists as a background for a novel," he says. "It's the one jewel-like city this country has, and what's more, it has structured its history in terms of a novel. So while my characters are fictional, I tried to make my history reasonably good history."
The new novel, centered on Barbara Lavette, the family patriarch's daughter, is filled with events culled from recent history, including a civil rights lynching in the South, anti-Vietnam War protests, the Six-Day War between Israel and Egypt, and the women's movement. "I chose Barbara's birth date to be the same as mine," Mr. Fast says, "so that, as I followed her chronologically through life, I could reflect on her experiences."
A native of New York, Mr. Fast has himself had enough interesting experiences in his 67 years to fill several lifetimes. He has written almost 60 books, including a novel published when he was 18. This despite the fact that for about eight years, during the 1950's, no major publisher would touch him - even though he had made a name for himself years before with such books as "Freedom Road" and "Citizen Tom Paine." He became a publishing pariah after he served three months in prison for refusing to give to the House Un-American Activities Committee the names of contributors to an organization on the Attorney General's list, and after he was awarded the Stalin International Peace Prize in 1954.
During the years of the blacklist, Mr. Fast self-published "Spartacus," a novel about slavery in ancient Rome, and later several other books, including "The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti." The stigma of the blacklist gradually faded after Mr. Fast publicly repudiated communism in 1956, following Nikita Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalin. "Spartacus" was reprinted in paperback and made into a motion picture starring Kirk Douglas.
"I was a part of a generation that believed in socialism and finally found that belief corroded and destroyed," Mr. Fast says. "That is not renouncing communism or socialism. It's reaching a certain degree of enlightenment about what the Soviet Union practices." But he acknowledges that his earlier writings were often dogmatic. "To be dogmatic about a cause you believe in at the age of 20 or 30 is not unusual," he says. "But to be dogmatic at age 55 or 60 shows a lack of any learning capacity." Yet even when he was a Communist, he says, "my books were attacked constantly by the Communist Party for not hewing to the Party line. I have never hewed to a Party line of any kind."
These days Mr. Fast is interested in Zen - not as a substitute for the god that failed, "but as a form of meditation and a very nice way of looking at the world. I think that of all the religions known to man, Zen is probably the gentlest."
Mr. Fast's family includes three other writers - son Jonathan, a novelist, daughter-in-law Erica Jong and brother Julius, who has written on body language. Mr. Fast continues to write several hours every day. "The only thing that infuriates me," he says, "is that I have more unwritten stories in me than I can conceivably write in a lifetime."