The Daily Worker - July 2, 1956
Suspense Novel by Howard Fast
Reviewed by Ben Levine
"The Story of Lola Gregg," by Howard Fast.
Blue Heron Press. 219 p. $3.
The novel of suspense is, as far as I know, a new field for Howard Fast, but "The Story of Lola Gregg" puts Mr. Fast at once among the masters of this popular medium. So tense is the manhunt that I kept reading, once I began, until I had gulped down the over 200 pages in one sitting, from the sinister start when two FBI bloodhounds slide out of a black Pontiac into a small Jersey grocery store, to the ultimate cruel climax.
The interest is sustained by the skill with which Mr. Fast has each chapter tell a short story complete in itself yet meshed with the rest of the book to fashion a unified Story of Lola Gregg.
The chase that is the main plot is no ordinary tale of pursuit. It is an incident in the dark national phenomenon, the Smith Act witchhunt. It is a pursuit directed against the life, liberty and happiness of the American people.
And because its characters are warm, breathing human beings, particularly the heroine and her parents, it offers more than the cold precision of the ordinary adventure novel in which wheels move within wheels like a well-made watch. It possesses rather the subtlety and charm of the petals within petals of a rose.
For Lola Gregg, the young American mother who is as tender as a flower and as tenacious as a tree, is a heroine you will not soon forget. She is as personal as a long-known friend at the same time as she develops in the story into a symbol of all the troubled and tried and tested wives of Smith Act victims.
Several vivid scenes highlight Lola's character. We meet her as a child in her physician father's office, where she assists in an emergency operation.
We see her rising to another crisis when, after her marriage, she defends her little son against a narrow-minded teacher and a politician-principal. I read this scene, by the way, with special interest, for I too had children in school and had to meet the problems created by the hysteria of the times.
And in the final crisis, Lola fights grimly for her husband's life.
Of all the 16 chapters, the one that moved me most was the 15th, that describes the meeting between Lola and her father. This section has elements of the reconciliation scene between King Lear and Cordelia, in which father and daughter shed all their reticences and speak of their feelings.
The father, a radical of a bygone era, tries to understand the political opinions of his daughter and her husband. At this point I believe, Mr. Fast missed a chance to explain Lola's thinking more clearly. The scene was none the less full of pathos and drama, but here was a chance to fill in the one element largely missing from the portrait of Lola Gregg, her political convictions which could not have come earlier without interfering with the swiftly paced story. But at this point the story was being purposely slowed up (Shakespeare did the same thing in King Lear) as a prelude to the final tragedy.
A more shadowy treatment is given to Lola's husband, who is a manly cool-headed fellow but who stays somehow in the world of the ideal, though there are indications that Mr. Fast has used an actual Communist Party leader, as least in part, for his model.
Unexplained is the motive for the hero's hopeless and hurried flight, and the scene in the theatre lobby is unreal melodrama, but in the suspense atmosphere of this kind of literature I was carried along while I read.
The ending, I felt, was unnecessarily cruel. It may be that I am getting sentimental and seek the happy ending in books that seems to be so long coming in real life. But I don't think the ending is required by whatever laws of esthetics there may exist or by the respect for history.
But the Lord gives and the Lord takes away, and I suppose an author is allowed to deal as he thinks fit with the lives of the people he himself has created.