Second Generation (Magill's Literary Annual 1979)
Howard Fast in his sequel to The Immigrants offers an appealing view of life in this century prior to World War II. While Second Generation will never be considered a great novel, it is nonetheless a well-written and absorbing work of great feeling. Set primarily in San Francisco in the 1930’s, it begins at the point where The Immigrants leaves off, and follows some of the same characters in their later lives. While The Immigrants is primarily the story of the life of Dan Lavette, Second Generation is exactly what the title suggests: an account of the lives of the second generation of the Lavettes. The action centers around Dan Lavette’s three children, Barbara, Tom (by his first wife, Jean), and Joseph (by his second wife, May Ling).
But Second Generation is also a novel of coming to terms with life. Fast passes few judgments on his characters throughout the novel, instead simply presenting their actions and their emotions. We see Dan Lavette—who in the first novel left his aristocratic and wealthy wife Jean and his own hardwon fortune for May Ling, his Chinese mistress—amass a second fortune, lose May Ling, and return to Jean; but there are practically no judgments. Fast gives to Barbara, Dan’s daughter, the words that sum up his rationale for this approach: “It’s like waking up after you’ve been asleep for a long time, and what happens then is that black and white are no longer black and white.” This is Fast’s compassionate attitude throughout the novel, whether he is depicting wealthy residents of Nob Hill, Communists in Paris, or Nazis in Germany.
The two most attractive facets of Second Generation are the characterizations and the screenplay quality of the structure. These constitute both the novel’s greatest strength and, at times, its greatest weakness. This is not a novel of great conclusions, of great philosophy, of precious gems of wisdom; it is a straightforward picture of life, simple only inasmuch as life itself is simple. The screenplay quality of the book’s structure places great emphasis on scene, and the frequently abrupt shifts can be jarring. At the same time, this technique keeps the action moving very effectively and makes for an easy visualization of the novel’s events. Perhaps this emphasis on scene as structure is an occupational hazard (or, it may be, benefit) of Fast’s having written so many screenplays in the past. (He is also the author of more than fifty books.)
There are no chapters in the novel; rather, it is divided—in addition to the divisions formed by extra spacing between the lines concluding one scene and opening another—into seven parts. They are entitled, in the order in which they appear: “Homecoming,” “The Leave-taking,” “Into Egypt,” “Reunion,” “Departure,” “Return,” and “Homeland.”
The primary structural tie in the novel is that of time. Events progress chronologically regardless of location, and it is here that the emphasis on scene is helpful; for in this manner Fast can depict all the events of a particular time without disturbing too drastically the natural flow of time itself. This technique is both an asset and a weakness, since it by necessity forces an abrupt shifting of location, character, and event. This shifting is an obstacle to understanding character fully, as the reader must keep the details of many characters’ lives constantly in mind in order to be able to pick up the action and the emotion involving a specific character where it was left off.
The other tie is that of family, which allows Fast to pursue the lives of a number of characters who initially have little to do with the main events of the novel other than through some past or future relationship with the Lavettes. This is the...
(The entire section is 1564 words.)
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