BEING RED

By Howard Fast

Houghton Mifflin. 370 pp. $22.95

MURRAY KEMPTON once told me what he called the only really funny story about American Communism, adding that unlike many such stories it had the merit of being true. In the early 1950s, Howard Fast was walking along a New York street when he encountered the cultural attache' of an Eastern European mission. Bidding good day to Comrade Fast, the attache' asked if he would be attending next week's special caviar-and-culture soire'e, to be held at the mission in the interests of peace and brotherhood. Stiffening slightly, Fast replied that if the comrade read the newspapers he would know that fascism was coming to the United States and that, as a direct consequence he, Fast, would be in prison by the following week. He therefore had no choice but to decline the kind invitation. "All right then," returned the Pole or Czech or Hungarian envoy, "Come when you get out."

This memoir brought that tale back to mind. Like the tale, the memoir is modern history as it affected Fast. But like the tale, the memoir is also true. Fast did go to jail for his convictions (one of the few Stalinists who did) and he has led a life rich in incident. Moreover, his Spartacus and his Citizen Tom Paine are still on many a shelf, and once set the blood coursing through the veins of men and women who are now safe, staid liberals. Fast also differs from the classic pattern of the ex-Communist stereotype, made notorious by James Burnham and Whittaker Chambers. He left the Communist Party for the same reason that he joined it -- which is to say he left it because he was interested in social justice and historical truth.

Love him or hate him, it's very difficult to read him. "There is no way to tell the story of the curious life that happened to me without dealing with the fact that I was for many years what that old brute Senator Joseph McCarthy delighted in calling 'a card-carrying member of the Communist Party.' " Hold it right there, one wants to exclaim, except that this is the opening sentence. Do you intend to include any punctuation? Will all your passages and periods be so exhaustingly informal?

Things improve a little, though it's not as if one hasn't read other accounts of being a Jewish proletarian, kicked around by poverty and the police, happening suddenly upon the work of Jack London and John Reed. After about 50 pages, however, Fast tells us of being turned down by a white street gang because he was an "unwanted Jew bastard," thus missing the fight where "They took one of the black kids prisoner, driving away the others, and in imitation of stories they had read in the tabloids and movies they had seen, they lynched the little boy -- he was thirteen -- putting a rope around his neck and pulling him up on a tree branch in the woods to the south of Macomb's Bluff."

A hell of a story, you'll have to admit, and later fictionalized by Fast as part of his astounding output.

The most moving and effective parts of this book show Fast's engagement in the battle against racism. There is an outstandingly graphic eyewitness description of the near-pogrom at Peekskill, where a crowd that wanted to hear Paul Robeson was set upon by a mob which acted with all the courage guaranteed it by police complicity. The other accounts of rallies, picket-lines and causes long past are small beer compared to this, and could have benefited from the blue pencil. I hope it's not churlish to say the same about his confrontation with the House Un-American Activities Committee, which except for some two-fistedly Fastian details is the story of bovine, philistine persecution as we have come to know and accept it.

Published as it is at the beginning of the post-Communist era, Fast's book seems even more dated than many narratives that emerged considerably earlier. There is, however, one episode that might tickle the historians. In 1946, the famous French Communist physicist Frederic Joliot-Curie came to New York. During a conversation with Fast, he revealed that the Soviet Union already possessed atomic bombs and that he had seen and worked on the weaponry. He gave an approximate timetable for the growth in Soviet nuclear capacity. To Fast's astonished questioning, he replied calmly that there was nothing to be surprised about, except that all Americans thought Russians were primitives. Fast printed the claim in the Daily Worker, expecting to elicit some official response, and was surprised at the resulting silence. Three years later, when Truman and Omar Bradley made the announcement for themselves, there was hysteria. How does this anecdote alter the fabled "atom spy" controversy?

Everyone, they used to say, has his Kronstadt -- his breaking point with the mixture of Utopianism and cynicism that was American Communism. For Fast, it was anti-Jewish mania in the Soviet Union that broke the main spring. But, as this rambling first-person stream of consciousness makes plain, if it hadn't been that, it would assuredly have been something else. How fortunate we are to live in a time when this book will arouse no controversy.

Christopher Hitchens is Washington editor of Harpers and a columnist for the Nation.