Howard Fast: Life and Literature in the Left Lane

Gerald Sorin. Indiana Univ., $40 (512p) ISBN 978-0-253-00727-8

Fame-hungry, wealth-obsessed, with a voracious appetite for women, bestselling author Howard Fast rose from the hardscrabble streets of his 1920s New York childhood to become a popular author and, perhaps more improbably, “the public face of the Communist Party in America.” In Sorin’s intriguing if dense new biography, Fast’s life becomes an excellent prism through which to view the history of leftist activity in the years straddling WWII, along with the anticommunism hysteria of the 1940s and ’50s. While recognizing Fast’s genuine beliefs, Sorin, professor emeritus of American and Jewish studies at SUNY New Paltz, does not whitewash his failings as a writer or as a person, criticizing much of his work alongside his doctrinal narrow-mindedness and blindness to Stalinist brutality. However, though Sorin explores Fast’s political activity and writing in almost exhaustive detail, his personal life remains hazier and less well-integrated into the larger story and themes. After being jailed for his political leanings, Fast regained popular literary success when in 1956 he left the American Communist Party, deflated by Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech” and the violent suppression of Hungary’s rebellion. All in all, this is a notable study of a thorny protagonist whose life has much to reveal about the times in which he lived and about the interplay of political belief, personal identity, art, and ambition. (Nov.)