Howard Fast, 84, still spinning yarns

July 18, 1999|By Ray Jenkins | Ray Jenkins,Special to the Sun

"Redemption," by Howard Fast. Harcourt Brace. 288 pages. $24.

More than just an icon of popular fiction, Howard Fast is a curiosity piece without peer. At the age of 84, the proud ex-communist who now sleeps cozily in the bedroom of American capitalism gives us his 45th novel.

The tale begins with Isaac ("Ike") Goldman, a kindly old widower and retired professor of law, coming upon a woman about to leap from a bridge in New York. Who knows, maybe along life's way old Ike has read Albert Camus' final masterpiece, "The Fall," in which another lawyer confronted with an identical situation scurries past a woman about to jump from a bridge, only to spend the rest of his life tormented by his callous indifference. Whatever his reason, Ike stops, coaxes the forlorn woman into his car, then into his apartment, and becomes her father-confessor.

Before her fateful encounter with Ike, Elizabeth Hopper had reached the end of her rope. Her husband, a rapacious Wall Street factotum called "Sedge" (for Sedgewick), has divorced her but continues to stalk and terrorize her in spiteful ways.

Though separated by 30 years, Ike and Liz are the perfect antidote for one another's misery -- she for his empty loneliness, he for her cruel abuse -- and they fall in love with a kind of gentle dignity. But this guileless reverie is upended when the consummate cad "Sedge" Hopper is found murdered at the desk where he has spent his unworthy life oppressing the poor and innocent. Liz is implicated by circumstantial evidence, and the ensuing trial and the labored conclusion form the bulk of the book.

No question, old Howard can still spin a compelling yarn with a leftish tinge. But that said, this novel must be read with the same sort of secret guilt one feels over enjoying a rerun of "Murder She Wrote." The writing has the creakiness of old wooden floors, and the characters are as one-dimensional as any created by Fast's spiritual ancestor, Charles Dickens. It's sadly clear from the outset that we really can expect no reflective meditation on the mysteries of suicide and transgenerational love-and-lust that we find in, say, Bernhard Schlink's powerful cult-novel "The Reader."

And that's a pity, because one senses that Fast forfeits the chance to tell a bit more about his fascinating life, which left off, a decade ago, with the publication of "Being Red: A Memoir."

Since that memoir came out Fast's adored wife and anchor, Bette, has died -- an event that led him to consider suicide. But he persevered, and in time took a much-younger woman he now calls his "companion." Herein lie the themes that Fast chooses to barely gloss over in what becomes just another routine mystery novel.

But the title "Redemption" could well apply to the writer's life in an ironic way. Even Fast's ideological foes have to admire the old Red's courage and tenacity.

Born of impecunious immigrants, Fast grew up a street urchin in New York. He got a job as a runner in a library, where he discovered Dickens and Jack London. With no more than this self-education, he published his first novel when he was just 19.

In the 1940s, he became a communist and inevitably was hauled before the House Unamerican Activities Committee. He refused to name names, for which he briefly went to jail. Blacklisted by the major publishing houses, he defiantly spent his last dollar self-publishing a novel titled "Spartacus," about a rebellious slave in Roman times.

When the fever subsided, that work would be made into the hugely successful film starring Kirk Douglas and would put Fast on easy street. Today he lives contentedly in Greenwich, the Connecticut bedroom community of New York's wealthiest, and has been invited to sup and argue with the patriarch of American conservatism, William F. Buckley Jr.

And so the man who once wrote columns for the Daily Worker now gamely soldiers on writing columns defending liberal values for the Greenwich daily newspaper. In one week recently, both Buckley and Fast had columns -- Buckley fretting over "compassionate conservatism," Fast demanding greater controls on guns. One senses that at least in his social values, Fast might even be more in sync with Greenwich than Buckley.

If old Marx were around, he might say it's enough to make a cynic believe in God.

Ray Jenkins has been a reporter for the Columbus (Ga.) Ledger. In 1954 he was one of two reporters who covered the Phenix City, Ala., upheaval, coverage that won the 1955 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. He has worked for the Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser-Journal, the New York Times in Alabama, the Clearwater (Fla.) Sun, and The Evening Sun, for which he was editorial page editor. His book "Blind Vengeance" was published in 1997 by the University of Georgia Press.

Pub Date: 07/18/99

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