One way to punctuate a family chronicle spanning several generations is with wars, catastrophes and social upheavals. This is certainly true of the Levys and Lavettes, whose mingled destinies have now occupied Howard Fast through four volumes of briskly selling saga.
A sample of the technique is given, about two-thirds of the way through the latest installment, by Sam Cohen, one of the newer twigs on the family tree (born in 1946) who may carry Fast's epic into still more volumes. Sam is in Israel. He has not exactly come to look for the place where his father, Bernie, was killed by Arab snipers in the 1948 war, but he thinks it must be nearby -- he is at Megiddo, the site of the future battle of Armageddon that is supposed to end it all.
Bernie Cohen was a scrapper, as those who have read "The Establishment" may recall, and Sam is not at all sure that he approves: "He fought through the Spanish war and then six years in the British army in World War Two, and then to die here. Why? Who was he? . . . Heroes. I could have had a father."
Instead, Sam has a mother, Barbara Lavette, who is also a scrapper. Barbara is the heiress who gave away her multimillion-dollar inheritance in an earlier volume, as soon as it became hers. She has a way of falling in love with men who are destined to die in wars, and also a knack for stirring things up and getting into trouble. It began in the '30s, when she became innocently involved with Depression-era demonstrators. Later, she went to jail for contempt of Congress, because she would not blow the whistle on innocent friends during the red-baiting era after World War II. Now, it is the '60s; she is in on the ground floor of the developing women's movement, and she has organized a group called Mothers for Peace to protest against the war in Vietnam. She uses her San Francisco home as headquarters for the rapidly growing movement, until it is destroyed by a fire of suspicious origin.
Clearly, we are not dealing only with the story of a family. What we have here is American history seen from a highly specialized point of view and exploiting the greater latitude that a fictional format offers the writer. Fast was doing this sort of thing before most of us were born. He has more than 50 books to his credit, and he has developed a technical smoothness that makes his books easy to read and relatively nourishing. He demands little of the reader, beyond a willingness to keep turning the pages, and he supplies enough activity and suspense to make this exercise worthwhile. If his books are seldom very good, they also manage to avoid being very bad, and they usually have a few moments that are truly memorable.
One such moment comes right at the beginning of "The Legacy," when Fast has to introduce the flavor of the '60s and begin preparing readers for the death of Big Dan Lavette, whose towering figure dominated much of the saga in its earlier installments. The '60s are not Dan's kind of era. He is nearly 70, and clearly Fast has to kill him off in this book. He starts the job efficiently enough in an opening scene that has Dan taking his regular morning stroll in Golden Gate Park with Jean (who was his first wife and is now his third). They are approached by two young men armed with a switchblade and brass knuckles who proceed to take their money. That doesn't bother Dan, but when they begin to molest Jean, he knocks one man unconscious and dislocates the other's shoulder. Obviously, Fast (who tends either to like or dislike his key characters a bit more than a novelist should) cannot bear to give the old man that kind of a send-off -- so he has to set up his death all over again later in the novel.
The character he likes best is Barbara, who seems to be (in this book as in earlier volumes) a representative of the novelist. She is not only the clearest exponent of Howard Fast's attitudes, but also an embodiment of the historical process. And when she cannot participate in person she usually falls in love with a man who will act in the scenes not open to her. After an affair with a man who dies in the Spanish war and her marriage to the ill-fated Bernie, she is ready for one more time around: a short-lived marriage to Carson Devron, a newspaper publisher and socialite in Los Angeles. He seems to be brought into the story partly because Fast wants to get in a few cracks at California-style snobbism, but also because he needs a connection to one of the key scenes of the decade. Carson is having dinner with a fellow publisher (reportedly worth half a billion dollars) when the conversation turns to politics. It is still the early '60s; Republicans expect John Kennedy to serve two full terms and are working out a five-year plan for the 1968 campaign. Carson's host suggests Richard Nixon as the logical candidate:
"There's a strange charisma about Mr. Nixon . . . He appeals to a level of mediocrity that most of us possess, to a nugget of meanness that we like to pretend we are free of, but . . . he has brains and a consuming, raging ambition."
Scenes like this, rather than the essentially dull family business, are the real payoff in the book. The history is rather simplified, but it gives the author a chance to enjoy himself and the reader an illusion of being present at momentous events. "War and Peace," it isn't; readable, it is.