THE OLD LEFT is a sequence of linked stories, a hybrid form somewhere between the novel and the short story collection as traditionally defined. The eight stories follow their central character, David Leonard, from his twenties to his forties; in all of them except the first, he is the narrator as well as the protagonist.
Formerly a newspaper reporter whose beat was City Hall, David has become a professor at the Columbia School of Journalism. Most of the stories focus on his relationship with his Uncle Sol, an unreconstructed Communist who, in his eighties, remains as pugnacious as ever. David’s dealings with him, laden with memories of boyhood summers at Uncle Sol’s farmhouse in the Berkshires, are a mixture of love and exasperation. At the same time, the stories offer an oblique chronicle of David’s slow acceptance of the roles of husband (he does not marry until he is thirty-eight) and father. His wife, Elizabeth, whom he meets in the Museum of Natural History’s Hall of Marsupials, is a vivid presence rendered with unembarrassed affection; the same is true of their son, Charlie, whose growth from infant to formidable two-year-old counterpoints Uncle Sol’s decline.
Although these stories are not strikingly original on the surface, they have their own distinct and very appealing flavor. Menaker has a fine eye for comic incongruities, yet he observes his characters with a gentleness uncommon in contemporary fiction. There is one troubling aspect to the book. Menaker presents Uncle Sol’s unswerving Communism as a comic eccentricity, rather as if he were a believer in UFO’s, yet there are also suggestions of nobility in his stubborn faith. Why has this lovable, fundamentally decent man, unlike so many of his contemporaries in the Old Left, failed to acknowledge that his faith was misplaced? What honor resides in that failure? Menaker never confronts these questions. After the news from the gulag, such evasiveness seems indefensible.