The view from Greenwich
Howard Fast on his hometown, politics and modern fiction
In his new novel, Greenwich, Howard Fast lifts the picture-book cover of this posh Connecticut suburb and reveals the currents of ambition, violence, guilt, doubt, and compassion that swirl underneath. The town, however, is less a shaper of action than it is a social petri dish in which cultures and classes of all sorts germinate.
Occurring over two days in June, the narrative pivots on a small dinner party given by the rich and ruthless Richard Bush Castle and his supposed "trophy wife," Sally. In attendance are Castle's mistress, a nun, a priest, a best-selling author, a linguistics professor, and his schoolteacher wife.
As Castle secretly confronts the consequences of his murderous past as a high government official, the best-selling author, Harold Sellig, presses his theory of collective guilt on all those who will listen. Castle's wife knows about the mistress, but the mistress doesn't know she knows. And so it goes, 'round the table.
It's all fairly academic, though, until a rush of events -- ranging from attempted rape to multiple murders -- topples the characters' untested assumptions of right and wrong. With the priest and the nun as his primary prisms, Fast also examines the utility of religion in reconciling people to the stresses of life and the prospect of death.
In a droll shift of perspective, Fast gives the reader intermittent glimpses of the main figures through the eyes of a celebrated African-American chef, who feeds both their stomachs and sense of self-importance, and an Italian-American plumber, who grudgingly mops up their wastes. While the characters are uniformly engaging -- particularly the strangely innocent Sally -- Greenwich is essentially a novel of ideas.
"I've lived in Connecticut on and off for 35 years," Fast says in a telephone conversation from his home. He admits that his story might just as easily have taken place in Beverly Hills. "Greenwich is a well-governed, well-run city -- a pleasant place to live," he reports. "Old Greenwich, which is a village that's part of Greenwich and where I live, is lovelier and even more desirable. It's like a step back in time."
At the age of 85, Fast remains dauntingly productive. He has written more than 40 books of fiction and nonfiction, plus numerous screenplays, short stories, essays, and commentaries. And he still writes a weekly newspaper column on politics.
In January, the Arts and Entertainment channel aired an adaptation of the The Crossing, his novel about George Washington. According to Fast, A&E has asked him to write a followup, but he has not yet agreed to do so. The sticking point to the sequel, he says, is that he wants to focus on the period just before Washington assumed the presidency, while A&E wants a story with "more battles."
Fast knows a lot about battles. He's fought enough of them. An open and defiant member of the Communist party until he quit in disillusionment in 1956, Fast spent three months in prison in 1950 for refusing to "name names." He was blacklisted for years afterward. Instead of stopping him, the blacklist simply made him even more inventive. He began writing under pseudonyms, and he formed his own press -- Blue Heron -- to publish works that other publishers feared to touch. One of his self-published books was Spartacus, his story of a Roman slave revolt, which was turned into a multiple Academy Award-winning movie.
His time as a political pariah also led Fast to write the E.V. Cunningham series of mysteries. "I wrote a novel called Sylvia when the blacklist was still on," he explains. "I wrote it just for the pleasure of writing it. My agent said, 'We can't do anything with your name. You know that. Let me put a name on it.' . . . So he put 'E.V. Cunningham' on it, and it was immediately snapped up by Doubleday. It was so successful that I did another E.V. Cunningham. And then more and more. I finally ended up publishing 21 of them."
His place on the political spectrum has never changed, Fast asserts: "I'm a lefty. I was born one, and I'll die one."
Fast has little affection for most contemporary fiction: "I find it absolutely ephemeral, filled with a phony mysticism and a phony spiritualism. Nobody, except an occasional writer like [Tom] Wolfe or one or two others, writes about what is happening today. They write about the future or the far past, or they write these ghost stories and vampire stories. I often think if your father or mother haven't abused you, you have no story to tell."
Edward Morris writes on music, politics, and fiction from Nashville.