The Charlotte Observer
Sunday, January 27, 1991
Arts, p. 3F
Fast Living: Author's Being Red Recalls McCarthy Era
By Mario Szichman, Associated Press
Howard Fast`s children call the second period in the writer`s career his "recycled life," says the 75-year-old author of more than 50 novels, 10 plays and 20 works of nonfiction. The hiatus in Fast`s career was marked by persecution during the McCarthy era, by his imprisonment, and, once the witch-hunting had ended, by his decision to leave the Communist Party. That chasm - and many others - is explained in his moving autobiography, "Being Red" (Houghton
His childhood was marked by his mother's death from pernicious
anemia when he was 8. It was then that his first chasm took place. He writes: "Memories of this beautiful lady . . . were wiped out in the moment of her death" and "began to return only after I had passed my 30th year." At that moment, "My mind had to choose between memory and madness or forgetfulness and sanity. My mind chose forgetfulness so that I could remain sane."
From then on, Fast and his brothers had the arduous task of growing up with a father whose main characteristic was to live "with both feet firmly planted in mid-air." What saved Fast and his brothers from destitution or jail was the world of books. "We huddled together," he writes. "We clung to each other; and every evening, after an hour to do our homework, we read books from the blessed library. Books were our religion, our shining hope, our dreams, and our futures."
It is not surprising that after a very brief adolescence marked by the
powerful influence of Jack London - including a trip to the Deep South that seems a written rendition of one of many movie versions of the Depression era - Fast would decide to become a writer. When he was 16, he wrote his first novel. Three years and four "best unremembered" novels later, he finally published "Two Valleys," and "the fact that the author was not yet 19 was made much of."
Then came adulthood, characterized by three main segments: a
marriage that has endured the most difficult times and has lasted more than five decades; World War II; and the McCarthy era. This part of Fast`s tale combines tragedy, terror, comedy and just plain stupidity. For Fast, "The ridiculous, the foolish, the idiotic always accompanies the exercise of terror, but a sense of humor is thrust aside." Power, terror and humor "don`t make an agreeable trio; otherwise, Hitler and Mussolini would have been laughed out of existence before they embarked on their murderous careers."
Fast says that in "Being Red," he tried to explain the ordeal he and many other writers and filmmakers experienced during the McCarthy era - when Sen. Joe McCarthy in the early 1950s upset many artists' careers by labeling them as Communists. But he feels someone still has to write about the mental anguish of living "in a shattered world," where the evil of the witch hunt was compounded by the evil of Stalinism.
In his autobiography, Fast recalls the time he tried to speak with the
son of the great Apache chief Geronimo, who was painting a mural in a public building in Washington. "An example," he says, "of our practice of destroying those who oppose us and then honoring them." Now, in his recycled life, Fast thinks about the past, grabs the most selected fragments of his experience - his stories as a war correspondent following "battles that ceased before I ever reached them" are anthological, as are his remembrances of such Hollywood characters as Samuel Goldwyn and Louis B. Mayer - and reconstructs several islands marked by sanity, kindness and understanding.
Maybe his philosophy can be better symbolized by Charles Treston, a navigator Fast met while he was a war correspondent. Treston was always reading a book, even during the most dangerous sorties: "Before (Treston) had encountered the Armed Services Editions, he
had never read a book. Comic books, school texts, but never a novel. Now he had discovered the novel, and he lived for nothing else. In his present existence, there was a war and an air force, and neither was of any importance to him. Books were important; books were his life; and he existed from book to book, living in each new world that was opened to him. . . .
"All writers were part of his marvelous new world, and this new
world was, for all its strange people and places, within his ability to comprehend. But the world of the war where he lived and worked defied comprehension."