Irvin Faust Essay - Critical Essays

Faust, Irvin

Faust, Irvin 1924–

American novelist and short story writer, Faust created something of a sensation with his first book of stories, Roar Lion Roar. The collection revealed Faust to be a writer of psychological depth, who, in addition, possessed a good ear for the idiosyncratic speech patterns of New York City youths. The stories were followed by his first novel, The Steagle, the study of an incipient psychotic breakdown. Unfortunately, Faust's subsequent novels have not quite matched his earliest efforts. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 33-36.)

"Foreign Devils," Irvin Faust's fifth book, probably needs two reviews. Or three. But one, two or three they would have to be applausive. Irvin Faust impresses.

Let me clarify. This novel is side-saddle astride one of the tiredest premises in fiction: a fouled-up, wife-and-family-separated, past-fixating writer with a block. And, yes, also Jewish. So what else is nu? For this impacted personal and artistic life the hero writes a laxative-therapeutic novel, while arguing with Captain Bligh, his Wasp conscience, with which sort of conscience a Jewish novelist shouldn't get stuck. It doesn't sound promising? No, I didn't think so either. But the character Benson (né Birnbaum) actually writes his novel—about the Chinese Boxer Rebellion—while Faust is writing a Chinese box or two of another novel and an extended short story around it. Both are valid and whole. At the end, as organic, live fiction must, they integrate with fine aptness. It's one hell of a concept, and executed.

"Boxers," the core novel, Benson-Birnbaum's novel, is a splendid exercise. Benson selects a character of energy and confidence. He expects to draw on it vicariously. Norris Blake is an old-boy newspaperman of the Hearst-Pulitzer age. And Faust has mastered the written language of that age—pompous, romantic, flowered, yet effective and easy….

Faust has a terrific ear. And, mind you, this isn't cheap parody. Faust (or Benson) appreciates the very real power of Blake's archaic style. Until the end, when Blake's narrative breaks down—preparing then to meld with Benson's narrative—"Boxers" itself claims attention. It is well-researched, painstakingly placed in China, in its particular time. Faust has taken no short cuts. And, throughout, the Blake narrative adjusts to, is influenced by, the mood and experiences of Benson, who, presumably, has been influenced by Faust's moods and experiences. It's a small, sharp lesson in the metabolism of creativity….

Benson-Birnbaum has some difficulty with Jewishness. He denies energy and confidence to people of his ethnic stock, looks for self-assurance in Christian masks…. Birnbaum wins an algetic health: It's a moving climax; the foreign devils in him have been exorcised.

A superior performance altogether. I recommend it. Irvin Faust does things here that will not easily be done again. Or as well. (p. 7)

D. Keith Mano, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 20, 1973.

The stories in Roar Lion Roar (1964) had all the wry, crazy skepticism of Malamud in The Magic Barrel, but they had an added dimension as well, a kind of hard-edged, street-smart view of experience that took them beyond their carefully mapped, predominantly New York settings and into a relationship with America.

Roar Lion Roar defined the themes that have occupied Faust—in gradually increasing complexity—ever since. "Into the Green Night" was a tribute to the warm world of childhood movie fantasies. "The Duke Imlach Story" was about a cipher of a young man who expected life to come to him. "The Madras Rumble" illustrated our American confusion of values: how we believe in fighting for power, but only in the right place at the right time. In "The World's Fastest Human" a track star was obsessed with victory and victory over women. "Roar Lion Roar" drew the equation between winning and belonging in America. "Jake Bluffstein and Adolf Hitler" turned an elderly New York Jew into a Nazi—because the war had been exciting and peace was not.

It's but a short step from these stories to The Steagle (1966), and the wild odyssey of Harold Aaron Weissburg, New York English professor. Weissburg leads a conventional American life of conventional American obligations. And then it is the Cuban missile crisis and he is careening across the country, fulfilling his childhood movie fantasies, living out his fantasies of victory in the sports arena and the bedroom. Weissburg was in the army during World War II. War, he knows, is a liberating experience. Responsibility can go by the board when there may be no tomorrow. Why not get what you want when the time is right? All that power. All that glory.

Which leads us directly into the urban warfare of The File on Stanley Patton Buchta (1970). Here some New Left students, black militants, and a right wing police group are brought together in a confrontation that has more to do with our American idea of power and victory and the glories of war than it does with liberty and justice. And in the middle, shuttling back and forth between the adversaries, is Stan Buchta: Hofstra graduate, Vietnam veteran, New York cop, girl chaser, cipher totally without commitment.

Which provides a contrast to the commitment of Willy Kleinhans in Willy Remembers (1971). Willy is ninety-three now…. The experience that shaped his life was the Spanish-American War. When he discovered his own heroism in "human-type warfare." When "it sure was something grand to see, all that thrilling and chilling American power sounding off," and they "had to plunge America into world powership." When his world was simple and intact.

Now we have Foreign Devils, and for the first time all the themes and obsessions have been brought together. They've also been taken further—into a vivid exploration of the agonies of the creative process. (p. 459)

[It's] a book well worth reading. Not only for its continued Faustian insights into our ambiguous American natures. Not only for its ability to document that tenuous, perilous relationship between the writer—his moods, his fears, his uncertainty—and the work he produces in the midst of it all…. This is a novel that can be read for its humor and richness of language as well.

Over serious questions of identity, Irvin Faust's characters have frequently indulged in impersonations…. But over them all stood the author—perfecting various ethnic voices in Roar Lion Roar, concocting the whole series of old movie routines in The Steagle, stringing together the historical—and not so historical—one-liners in Willy Remembers. Following a New York tradition, Faust has always been something of a stand-up comedian in print. And now we have a Sidney Benson who identifies with Lenny Bruce….

All of Faust's novels have been flawed. The Steagle gradually slid out of control. Stanley Patton Buchta never quite made sense out of Stanley. Willy Remembers couldn't entirely reconcile the blurring of history with the clarity of remembered personal experience. Foreign Devils can't quite make it all add up either. But you will laugh, and you will cry. It's Irvin Faust's best book to date. (p. 460)

Steven Kroll, "More New York 'Awareness'," in Commonweal (copyright © 1973 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), August 24, 1973, pp. 459-60.

I have always been fascinated by the terrible passion of the stand-up comic, a man whose monstrous confidence is matched only by the fixed, abject conviction that he stinks….

So, I came to Irvin Faust's new novel, "A Star in the Family," ready to be enchanted by the familiar told in a new way; to be vouchsafed insights (outside of the kind of two-bit Freudian insights applied these days to any phenomenon); to find literature made of the stand-up comic, as West made literature of Hollywood, and Celine of the lower depths, or, yes, as O'Hara did with Pal Joey….

In the Faust novel (as in [Wallace Markfield's "You Could Live if They Let You"]), I found this: absolute accuracy, absolute fidelity to the milieu; a rendering of conversation without a false note; an exact estimate of who represents what on any level of show business; an impeccable story line moving inexorably from bright beginning to dismal end; technical devices not new but used expertly; in short, a thoroughly professional performance.

And that was all. The reader could as well have pieced together the story himself from a year's issues of Variety ("N.Y. to L.A.") and the personal memoirs of a writer born in the same year … that his protagonist, the stand-up comic, was. The reader begs to be transfixed, to be made dizzy with revelations of the universal. He is given, instead, smooth competence and a set of computer print-outs. He is impressed by that but he is not moved, neither exhilarated nor depressed; occasionally amused; put off by the failure of a number of fantasy passages. (p. 13)

Gilbert Millstein, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 30, 1975.