The Baltimore Sun
Sunday, October 1, 1995
Perspective section, p. 4F
Howard Fast at 80, working hard and telling stories -- innocent and ambiguity
by Michael Pakenham
Howard Fast is 80 years old, and a book he just finished writing will begin to reach the shops this week. His first book, also a novel, came out in 1933, 62 years ago. In between, he has published 85 other books (though there is some argument about the total figure): novels, plays, memoirs, collections of stories.
The publishers say that more than 50 million copies of his books have been sold, including translations into 82 languages. He may well be the most-read writer of the 20th century.
The new book is "The Bridge Builder's Story" (M.E. Sharpe. 224 pages. $19.95). The story spans 16 years or so, beginning in 1939 with a brutally clear evocation of Germany and the Nazis.
The central character, an MIT undergraduate at the start and a bridge-building engineer at the end, goes through a long and generally brutal, though privileged, groping search for self-acceptance. The book ends redemptively, affirming the essential principles of humane goodness and love.
It is an unapologetically sentimental tale; after the core characters are established, the first stranger the reader meets is the madam of a brothel, with a heart of gold - a savior, quite literally.
There is a cleanness, an almost sparseness, about the writing that contributes to the book an unmistakable emotional power. The narrative is lean, totally self-confident, cantering along with no flab or baggage. Mr. Fast can take the main character cross the Atlantic, first class, on the Queen Mary in an 11-line paragraph and miss little except the cry of gulls.
It should be surprising, perhaps, that this book is about a main character who appears at age 20 and at book's end is 35. Mr. Fast quite convincingly goes inside the muddled and muddling, terrified and surprise-filled experiences that come between those ages. One might expect that at 80, someone with the sweep of experience of 62 years of writing novels would choose to speak of the wisdom of age, from the depth of insight and complexity of the venerable.
Not Howard Fast. There is no old man of the sea here. He has preserved a freshness, a vitality, an ingenuousness that is convincing and charming. A strangely engaging quality about the prose is the absence of eloquence, or any evident attempts to produce it. The climaxes, resolutions, cadences, breakthroughs, recognitions are delivered either in informal dialogue - the voices are well wrought - or in statements so simple as to elude excerpting.
How is it then powerful? Because of Mr. Fast's artfulness in making the tale a whole fabric of experience rather than attempting explanation. This is showing, with no telling at all.
He has been doing that a long time. Not that it matters to anybody, but I first read Howard Fast, and was smitten by his prose, when I was 12. The book was "Citizen Tom Paine." It told me three things, convincingly: That misery is miserable. That the individual human spirit has the potential and duty to rise from misery to something like glory and surely to happiness. That fulfilling that capacity for redemption justly should be the destiny of humankind.
Howard Fast has never been a literary figure, in the sense of high art or intellectual originality. For more than 60 years, he has been a consummate storyteller.
The novel is about stories. There is and can be no novelist of any enduring value who is not an excellent storyteller. (The evanescent fads that defy that truth do so at the peril of righteous ridicule for the faddists and their scribblings.) That does not mean, sad to say, that every excellent storyteller is a novelist of enduring consequence.
Howard Fast, rather, was - and remains - an important figure of popular culture, and for the central period of his life an international political figure as well. He joined the Communist Party in 1944, when Russia was a mainstay ally of the United States and Stalin's picture hung beside Roosevelt's and Churchill's in thousands of American saloons. That was long after many American artists and intellectuals had already left the party, in fact or in heart.
Slaughter of dissidents
He remained an active party member until 1957, years after all but the hard core had fled, and despite its manifest horrors: the pact with Hitler, wholesale slaughter of dissidents, rampant anti-Semitism, the repressive brutalitarianism of Stalin and the Stalinist concept of party and state.
At the height of his political career, Mr. Fast was a doctrinaire Stalinist and a cultural icon for the Communist Party and cause.
He wrote a remarkable book at the close of the 1950s, "The Naked God," repudiating the Communist Party, and then in 1991 seemed to repudiate that repudiation in "Being Red" (Houghton Mifflin. 370 pages. $22.95).
There can be no question that he was drawn to the left by a deep and genuine sympathy for the oppressed, growing from the experiences of a childhood of bitter deprivation in New York City. Both in joining the party and leaving it, he was driven by what in "Being Red" he called the "burden of morality."
"The Bridge Builder's Story" is, as the rest of his work and his political life, utterly innocent of ambiguity, of irony. Mr. Fast has been widely quoted from time to time as saying "an opinion, any opinion, unless it is voiced tentatively, is in black and white."
Tentative Howard Fast is not. From his life, there are lessons to be learned.