Masses & Mainstream
October, 1949, pp 84-86
DEPARTURE AND OTHER STORIES,
by Howard Fast. Little, Brown. $3.00.
A NEW BOOK by Howard Fast, today the most internationally honored American novelist wherever books are read by honest, progressive people, is always an event of tremendous interest - and this courageous writer's present offering, Departure and Other Stories, dedicated to the men of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, is no exception. For here again Fast does what no other American writer whose works have sold in the hundreds of thousands, and millions, is doing today: he presents Communists as human beings, good human beings, heroic human beings; and gives us poignant, exciting and truthful stories about them.
That Fast is paying for his courage is no secret: a jail term is hanging over his head, and the same giant book clubs and newspapers which used to run after him are now avoiding him on the one hand or blackjacking him on the other. But Fast has thrown his hat into the ring of the future; and, more than that, has jumped into that ring with both fists swinging.
Take a story like "Epitaph for Sidney" in the present collection, for example. Here, in Fast's deceptively simple but rhythmic prose, is the story of Sidney Greenspan, Communist, veteran of the Lincoln Brigade, who died fighting fascism in the recent war, in '44. Sidney, Fast tells us, was born in 1915 in New York City's Washington Heights, went to Public School 46, then to De Witt Clinton High School, and then for a while to City College. He came of a poor Jewish family and worked in a dry goods store after school, was active in the student movement, joined the Young Communist League. People were surprised when Sidney went to Spain. He didn't look like much physically, and he definitely mistrusted guns. Sound familiar? Of course.
It's the solid stuff of the radical movement: Sidney represents more than Sidney; he represents a whole generation, a whole special group of Communist citizens whose fundamental life patterns are similar to Sidney's. Yet no one has told their story so movingly and effectively. I showed this story to some old, tough, Daily Worker readers who had missed it when it appeared in Jewish Life and who, after absorbing what went before, confessed they were crying or on the verge of tears when they came to the final paragraph:
"Some of us who knew him, when we heard of his death, thought that we would write down an epitaph for him. Then, in the personal columns of the paper he read and loved, there were many boxes with heavy black lines to bind them in, and whatever the name, there was a reference to the struggle against fascism. That was how we came to put together what we knew and remembered of Sidney; but nothing we could tell and nothing we could compile and no reasons we could give were enough to explain the fabric of him. So we gathered it into a word and wrote: 'To the memory of Sidney Greenspan, anti-fascist, who fell in the people's struggle - from his comrades'."
I think "Epitaph for Sidney" will live a long, long time in our literature.
"Departure," the title story, is the tale of a young volunteer in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade during its last days and is told in the form of a monologue by the volunteer. There is beautiful writing here; the tender words flow in a nostalgia-banked stream, carrying with it some of Fast's most effective and graceful imagery. Other Lincoln Brigade vets, like myself, I'm sure, will be hit hard with empathy, in certain places - and yet, there's an objection - at least I have one. I found it hard to believe in the almost a-political Lincoln Brigader, a youngster who seemed, at the beginning of the story, no different from any other youth caught in a war in which he had no particular interest. Any resemblance between such a young man and those who volunteered to fight fascism in Spain is certainly not characteristic; and this made the transition of the character to one determined to fight it out to the last not too easy to take.
There are three stories in this volume about India: Fast's experiences there during the war evidently had a profound effect upon him. "The Little Folks from the Hills" which first appeared in Masses & Mainstream, is only ten pages long; but in those ten pages Fast has worked up a story so skillful in its horrifying exposure of what imperialism has done to India that the reader barely notices the shocking blow aimed at his consciousness until he's finally hit with it. It's a solid hit, too.
The effect of "The Police Spy" is, however, somewhat different. This is a version of a story of the Indian Communist Party which I had heard from GI's who had served in that area, and is told by Fast with relish, wit and high style - up to a point, which I'll come to later. Here, again, without making any bones about it, Fast presents the Communist leader as the heroic figure that he is, and does this in so real a way that the characterization would be convincing for the non-Communist. There is delicious irony here, too, in the pity the police spy feels for himself, the exploitation he believes he is suffering - being so underpaid for his assigned task of following a fast-moving, tireless, ubiquitous district organizer of the Communist Party of India. There was every element here for a fine satire; but the point at which I parted company from the story occurred when the Communist organizer, though somewhat dubiously, finally organized a police spy "union." More, the police spy, himself, later becomes a martyr for the "union," suffering terrible torture rather than reveal the names of his fellow "unionists" to the government. I simply cannot go along with a story that associates the heroism of so many true sons and daughters of the revolution and the penalty they paid for that heroism - with a police spy! I go along rather with the character in the story who, when told by the organizer "a police spy is human," answers that the question is one of "form and content.... The form is human, but the content is a yellow scum."
However, in his third story about India, "The Rickshaw," a fine story, you can feel that same power and delayed action impact of "The Little Folk from the Hills." It has the fierce anti-imperialist drive of Fast's best work. There are other stories I enjoyed, but I didn't care for the very-thin-slice-of-very-pallid-life à la New Yorker stories. Some of these, I'm inclined to believe, were originally written for the slicks. A couple of other stories in the volume were first run, years ago, in the Saturday Evening Post and Woman's Day. This brings up a bone I have to pick with the Little, Brown edition: the lack of an introduction to a collection of stories of such different levels written under widely varying circumstances over a period of ten years.
Despite some of the dross, there is gold a-plenty in Departure and Other Stories - including some good-sized chunks which will shine for a long time to come.