Max Britsky never cared much about money except as a tool for surviving and for making his ideas work -- but somehow the money poured in on him, as it seems to do so often for Howard Fast's heroes. What he cared about was the women in his life -- his mother, his sisters, assorted mistresses and, above all, perhaps, the woman he married: Sally Levine, a schoolteacher, the child of an earlier generation of immigration and a sort of trophy for the tough, street-smart kid from the Lower East Side of Manhattan who had to begin hustling to support his family when he was only 12 years old. All of his women did him wrong, sooner or later -- most spectacularly, his wife, who took him to the cleaners in the divorce settlement and meddled in his business life with a vindictive, destructive fury. But that was later, after the early years when they were partners if not lovers and they helped to build movies into a major industry if not quite a form of art.
It all sounds rather interesting in a daytime television sort of way. Fast's novels tend to sound interesting in a plot summary if their inherent improbabilities are not overemphasized. And they do keep a reader going, page after page, wondering what will happen next, even if the characters are caricatures, cardboard cutouts; they are, at least, caricatures to whom interesting things keep on happening.
The most indefatigable caricature in "Max" is probably his mother, whom Max (and the novel) takes from abject poverty in the New York ghetto in 1891 to a Beverly Hills mansion with furs and servants in 1927. Sarah Britsky comes on stage complaining colorfully in Yiddish, and she does not do much else through the next 300-odd pages, though the language does change to English at some point. Her first appearance is in a scene immediately after her husband's death when young Max, manfully determined to shoulder the burden of supporting the whole clan, tells her: "It'll be all right."
"You're telling me!" she replies. "I'm dying and you're telling me it'll be all right!"
Tune in 21 years later, after Max has accumulated a substantial fortune, moved her to the Upper East Side in a fancy row house and given her a couple of grandchildren: "I got to plead with you to come and see me . . . You're a millionaire. After all, what kind of use has a millionaire got for an old Jewish lady . . . I could drop dead. Eat something. I stayed up to the middle of the night baking." She also has, naturally, execrable taste in clothing and home furnishings and she enjoys nothing more than fighting with Max's wife -- except, perhaps, telling him what an ingrate and an insignificant worm he is.
Ultimately, she destroys him -- as much as a self-made multimillionaire can be destroyed -- by making him feel guilty because his brothers have embezzled millions of dollars from his company and he hesitates to save them by sacrificing his career: "What is stealing? So they took a few dollars. It's family. Family. From strangers they weren't taking." And when Max explains that it was not a few dollars but a few million (and stolen not from him but from a publicly owned corporation that he founded), she goes for the jugular: "So? So? Are you starving? Is your company going into bankruptcy because of this? I look out the window, I see you drive up in a Cadillac limousine with a chauffeur yet. For you the whole world . . . but for your brothers nothing."
She is only the most obviously shallow character in the book; others are equally simplistic but not quite so noisy. But if he is weak in presenting real human beings, Fast has undeniable strength in putting them against vivid, well-realized backgrounds. The basic plot underlying Max's problems with family and women is the growth of the movie industry from the nickelodeon to the dawn of talking pictures, its beginnings on the East Coast and its migration to California. Max is presented as a pioneer in this process, as an old friend and colleague says in the final words of the book: "Max brought something new into the world, and because of him, for better or worse, the world will never be the same again. Oh, I know there were others, but Max was always a step ahead. Of how many men can that be said?"
Fast's talents, outside of an ability to build plot tensions, seem to be essentially those of nonfiction writer. He is quite interesting when he gets into the technical details of putting together a pioneering narrative feature film, including a detailed account of its melodramatic plot. And he conveys effectively the sense of what it was like at a studio in Hollywood at the end of the era of silent film. He gives a clear if not detailed idea of the corporate machinations involved in the struggle for control of the movie industry when it was new, and a fair idea of the kind of parties given by Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford in their heyday. If he knew how to put real people in his books, he might become a fair novelist.