Life in the Howard Fast Lane is Doom & Gloom
By Tracie Rozhon, Special to the Daily News
GREENWICH, Conn. - Howard Fast is one of those delightfully
confusing people whose manner seems utterly simple, calm and straightforward, but whose words leave you wondering, days later, if you even scratched the surface. Weeks later, you decide you didn't.
Maybe it's the same with his books - notably his series about a group
of immigrants and their descendants. It's easy to dismiss the writing in these four novels as pulpy, the story as soap opera. But like Fast's own words, the story tends to stay with you because Fast is a terrific storyteller.
YET WHEN HIS publisher sends out one book that Fast would like
the interviewer to read, it's not "The Legacy," his newly released fourth novel in the series, which already has sold 125,000 copies. It's a thick paperback called "Time and the Riddle," a collection of 31 Zen stories. "I feel so frustrated," said Fast, a balding man with a brushy mustache, sitting in the study of his Greenwich, Conn., home. "Next to 'The Legacy,' 'Time and the Riddle' sold very few copies indeed."
At one time, Fast was once an avowed Communist who went to jail
for refusing to disclose the names of contributors to a hospital that treated U.S. volunteers in the Spanish Civil War. Now he is a Zen Buddhist - "sort of," because, with Zen, nothing's supposed to be too definite. In the conclusion to his book of Zen short stories, Fast explains that what makes the tales Zen is that each has a riddle: They seem simple, but are they? "But I don't think Zen should be clouded in some kind of mystery," he said. "I wrote a small book, which I guess is the shortest book on meditation that's ever been published. It sold widely for this kind of book - 8,000 to 9,000 copies."
FAST DECIDED not to discuss politics, but somehow it kept coming
up. His stories seem very pessimistic, I noted - some violently so. "Life is very pessimistic," he said, "with the world in the hands of Gen. Haig, who is second cousin to a lunatic - he and Brezhnev, the third
cousin to a lunatic. They sit around debating whether the human race should be allowed to continue, using the euphemism 'atomic exchange' for blowing up everything so not even a blade of grass would be left. "I don't mean to say life is not a very beautiful and wonderful process," he said, "but nothing is changed by that belief. I can sit here and say 'I firmly believe man will survive,' but when you start dealing with objective facts - well, if I say I'm a pessimist, it's because the facts warrant it."
The state of American education is another one of his concerns, and
he's discouraged enough to label it "a farce, a disaster. Public education has deteriorated beyond our wildest dreams in the 35 years since World War II."
BUT ALL THIS pessimism contradicts Fast's success. He is working
on a novel about the start of moviemaking in Hollywood. His success has been both professional and personal: He and sculptor Bette Fast have been married for more than 40 years. Their house is one of the finest in one of the nation's wealthiest suburbs. Yet Fast loves California - another paradox, since he loathes its movie-star mystique - and only moved to Connecticut a year ago at his wife's insistence in order to be near their son, Jonathan, his wife, novelist Erica Jong, and their granddaughter, Molly.
Fast has made millions from his 55 books - the first published when
he was 18 - and from TV rights to mini-series made from "The Immigrants" and ''Freedom Road." Yet, in another contradiction, he sounds almost as disgusted about these shows as he is about the Reagan administration. "The Immigrants," he said, emerged as "a monstrosity." The producers ''made certain promises about casting, and writing . . . the adaptation was idiotic, the casting dreadful." Of "Freedom Road," his tragic story of a courageous black family during Reconstruction, he said: "They cast Muhammad Ali as the hero - it was terrible."
BEFORE "Freedom Road" was produced, Fast stated that he would
personally oversee its production. "Famous last words," he said now. "There's no way to fight the network. You sell it or you save it, and if you feel you've written something important, then you want people to see it." "America rewards brainlessness," he added. "You see it in politics, but nowhere like in Hollywood. The networks exalt stupidity."
Fast won an Emmy award for his treatment of "The Ambassadors,"
a play about Benjamin Franklin, "but that was no great success," he said with irony, "because only 24 million people saw it." "One of the terrible things about age is that you lose your expectations, the edge wears off," he said. "You lose your illusions and to live without illusions you must be a saint or a philosopher or a fool."
Bette Fast walked into the study, carrying a pot of tea, some cups and a plate of ginger snaps. "Am I a pessimist?" he asked her, smiling. "No," she replied firmly, " you don't think of yourself that way." No wonder the book Fast likes best has the word "riddle" in its title.