The New York Times
March 10, 1987, p. C16
Howard Fast in a New Mode With Latest Novel
By Mervyn Rothstein
"It's been said," Howard Fast remarked, "that I am the most widely read writer of the 20th century. The number of books I've sold runs into untold millions. 'Freedom Road' alone we calculated at one point years ago had sold over 20 million copies. The only complete bibliography of my work was done by a Russian scholar who came up with 82 languages and something in the neighborhood of 30 million books, but that was in 1952, so it's more than 30 years ago. I always tell myself that someday I'm going to try and add this up, but there's really no way I can do it."
Mr. Fast, 72 years old, the author of "Spartacus," "Citizen Tom Paine," "April Morning," "Freedom Road," "The Immigrants" and more than 60 other novels, was sitting in his Fifth Avenue apartment getting ready to discuss his latest book, "The Dinner Party," a work that is a departure from his best-selling immigrant saga of recent years. The cast of characters includes a United States Senator and his wife, the Secretary of State; the Senator's billionaire father-in-law; the Senator's homosexual son, and the son's black lover. The topics include Zen meditation, AIDS, quantum mechanics, and the church-related sanctuary movement that has helped illegal aliens from Central America enter this country.
Critics have said that "The Dinner Party" reads like a well-made play. Mr. Fast has written nine plays; his most recent, an adaptation of "Citizen Tom Paine," is being done in Philadelphia and Washington, and there is a possibility that it will come to Broadway. "The play is a marvelous form," he said. "But it demands less than a novel. A really fine novel to me is the highest form of literature we have today. On the other hand, the theater is direct and intimate, and I wanted that quality in this book - a direct confrontation with the audience."
Some critics have lamented that Mr. Fast did not use in the novel certain techniques of modern fiction, such as irony and ambiguity. "I think I used a good deal of irony," Mr. Fast said. As for ambiguity, he said, he's not an ambiguous person - "An opinion, any opinion, unless it's voiced tentatively, is in black and white."
A 'Stain' on Honor
"'The Dinner Party' is a direct result of my being unable to get over my problem of indignation," he said. "I get indignant too easily. I had been following this sanctuary business. To me, this was the kind of stain on the honor and decency of America that had never happened. To wire an informer and send him into a church to record conversations, and then to use those recordings to threaten priests, a minister, a nun and other people with five years' imprisonment?
"I began brooding over this," he said. "What happens, I asked myself, if a United States Senator is equally horrified by this sanctuary business? What could an honest man do in the face of this abomination? Or could he do nothing? Is a man in the Senate, the highest deliberative body we have, as powerless as I am? These are interesting questions. The books is my attempt to explore these questions - not to answer them, because I don't know the answers. And I thought the exploration of these questions was terribly important."
Mr. Fast was born in New York City, into poverty. "I began to work when I was 11 years old, to help support our family," he said. "When I got out of high school there was no way I could even dream of going to college, so I got up at 6 in the morning and wrote for two hours and then went down to the garment district to work in a factory. I sold my first story when I was 17, to Amazing Stories magazine. When I was 18 I sold my first novel."
Three Months in Prison
A successful writer, Mr. Fast joined the Communist Party - a move he attributes at least in part to the poverty of his youth. Appearing before a Congressional committee investigating Communism, he refused to name names, and served three months in prison in 1950 for his refusal. Then, from 1950 to 1960, he was blacklisted.
In 1956, Mr. Fast denounced and left the Communist Party. "It was one thing after another," he said, and it culminated "when Khrushchev gave that speech before the 20th Party Congress" exposing the horrors of the Stalinist era. Another reason, he said, was the growing realization "that anti-Semitism had taken root and had grown in the Soviet Union."
After the blacklist, Mr. Fast of course went back to being a best-selling novelist, and his books have sold millions of copies.
"I've been very fortunate," he said. "No question about it. Because even during the blacklist years my books were selling by the millions all over the world. There were always enough royalties for us to live decently. I was very lucky, very fortunate. But I was born and grew up in the greatest, the noblest achievement of the human race on this planet - which was called the United States of America.