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Irvin Faust Biography - Irvin Faust comments:

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Nationality: American. Born: New York City, 1924. Education: City College of New York, B.S. 1949; Columbia University, New York, M.A. 1952, D.Ed. 1960. Military Service: Served in the United States Army, 1943-46. Career: Teacher, Manhattanville Junior High School, New York, 1949-53; guidance counselor, Lynbrook High School, Long Island, 1956-60. Since 1960 director of Guidance and Counselling, Garden City High School, Long Island. Taught at Columbia University, Summer 1963, New School for Social Research, New York, 1975, Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania, 1976, City College, 1977, and University of Rochester, New York, Summer 1978. Awards: O. Henry prize, 1983 and 1986; Charles Angoff award, for fiction, 1994. Agent: Gloria Loomis, Watkins Loomis Agency Inc., 150 East 35th Street, New York, New York 10016.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

The Steagle. New York, Random House, 1966.

The File on Stanley Patton Buchta. New York, Random House, 1970.

Willy Remembers. New York, Arbor House, 1971.

Foreign Devils. New York, Arbor House, 1973.

A Star in the Family. New York, Doubleday, 1975.

Newsreel. New York, Harcourt Brace, 1980.

Jim Dandy. New York, Carroll and Graf, 1994.

Short Stories

Roar Lion Roar and Other Stories. New York, Random House, andLondon, Gollancz, 1965.

The Year of the Hot Jock and Other Stories. New York, Dutton, 1985.

Uncollected Short Stories

"Action at Vicksburg," in New Black Mask (Orlando, Florida), Fall1985.

"Artie and Benny," in Michigan Quarterly Review (Ann Arbor), Spring 1989.

"Let Me Off Uptown," in Fiction (New York), 1991.

"Black Auxiliaries," in The Literary Review (Madison, New Jersey), Summer 1994.

Other

Entering Angel's World: A Student-Centered Casebook. New York, Columbia Teachers College Press, 1963.

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Critical Studies:

By Richard Kostelanetz, in The New American Arts, New York, Horizon Press, 1965, in Tri-Quarterly (Evanston, Illinois), Winter 1967, and in On Contemporary Literature, New York, Avon, 1967; by R.V. Cassill, in New York Times Book Review, 29 August 1971; interview with Matthew Bruccoli, in Conversations with Writers 2, Detroit, Gale, 1978; by Martin Tucker in Confrontation (Brookville, New York), Fall 1994.

(1972) It seems to me that thus far my work has dealt with the displacement and disorganization of Americans in urban life; with their attempt to find adjustments in the glossy attractions of the mass media—movies, radio, TV, advertising, etc.—and in the imageradiating seductions of our institutions—colleges, sports teams, etc. Very often this "adjustment" is to the "normal" perception a derangement, but perfectly satisfying to my subjects.

Recently my work has moved out to include suburban America and also back in historical directions. My characters to this date have been outside of the white anglo-saxon milieu, but have included Jews, Blacks, Puerto Ricans and the so-called Ethnic Americans.

Both Roar Lion Roar and The Steagle were published in France (Gallimard) and I feel the reviews were most perceptive, leading me to muse that perhaps, unbeknownst to me, I am quite close to the French literary sensibility.

(1995) Jim Dandy continues my exploration of the psychology and actuality of wars since 1898. This time I've dug into the Italo-Ethiopian conflict of 1936, which pre-figured World War II. We are still living with its ramifications, and fiction helps us to understand these relationships.

* * *

In his novels and short stories, Irvin Faust has attempted (as he said of one novel), "to show the rise and fall of this nation over the last forty years." Were this all, he would be essentially a social historian disguised as fictional chronicler of our times. Faust, however, has managed to weave together a substantial number of additional themes, drawing upon his background as Jew, New Yorker, veteran, husband, and professional guidance counselor. The integration of these materials, when successful, produces a rich tapestry of life in contemporary urban America, especially when played off against the past, both mythicized and actual.

His first fictional book, Roar Lion Roar, treated with sensitive compassion the interior lives of disturbed adolescents of minority backgrounds. In the title story, Ishmael Ramos, a janitor at Columbia University, so identifies with the "ivory leak" school that he kills himself when the football team loses. Most of the protagonists of these stories are insane but even the sane have been mind-molded by the mass media or warped by the pressures of recent history. Indeed, Faust's major theme of the forming and deforming of personality by an empty culture in a violent, chaotic world may here have found its most solid embodiment.

The broader canvas of the novel form permitted Faust the breadth and depth needed to convey the specificity of a conflicted culture in its dizzying impact upon the individual. In Faust's first novel, The Steagle, English Professor Harold Weissburg develops a multiple personality while his sense of self disintegrates during the Cuban missile crisis. The title is a composite-name formed from two football teams, the Steelers and the Eagles. Thus, as the United States shifts from "good neighbor" to threatening nuclear power, Weissburg, in desperate flight across the country, becomes Bob Hardy (brother of Andy, of the wholesome movie family), gangster Rocco Salvato, a football hero, a flying ace, and, finally Humphrey Bogart. In The File on Stanley Patton Buchta his protagonist is an undercover policeman, Vietnam veteran, and college graduate who infiltrates both a paramilitary rightist group within the police department and a New Left organization. He is further divided in romantic loyalty to an all-American blonde beauty and a black militant on whom he is spying. Perhaps because the hero is not fully realized, or because the material lacks the historical density which the author prefers, this fairly conventional novel lacks impact.

Faust's next two novels, however, are probably his best to date. Willy Remembers features the redoubtable Willy Kleinhans, who at ninety-three is an embodiment and archive of America in the nineteenth century. The history he recalls is badly scrambled but curiously apt: Grover Cleveland is confused with baseball-pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander; John F. Kennedy melds with McKinley, another assassinated President; Admiral and Governor Dewey, Franklin and Teddy Roosevelt likewise interchange. The Haymarket Riot, the frame-up of Tom Mooney, prohibition, and T.R. at San Juan hill all whiz by as kaleidoscopic snapshots. Despite Willy's anti-semitism, curmudgeonly judgments and angry confusion, he is a likable and likely representative of his time and place. Although R.V. Cassill rightly praised Willy Remembers for its "overlapping stereotypes of urban and national memory" and the novel's "Joycean complexity," Faust does not always guide the reader adequately along these high-speed, involuted memory-trips. The novel does display, nevertheless, a marked advance in control of point-of-view and the blend of fantasy and realism. With Foreign Devils Faust achieves mastery in weaving together the items of popular culture, the myths by which many Americans live, and the disintegrating personality of a Jewish writer. His hero, Sidney Benson (born Birnbaum), is separated from his wife and living partly off his mother's earnings from a candy store. Inspired by President Nixon's trip to China, Benson, who has suffered from writer's block, begins a novel about the Boxer rebellion. This melodrama, or novel-within-the-novel, is an exquisite parody of the swashbuckling accounts of Richard Harding Davis, and is perhaps the chief attraction of Foreign Devils. The action in the present, except for Benson's reunion at the end with his father (who had deserted his family years ago), is cluttered with topical references, both a shortcoming and an attraction in Faust's fiction.

Faust's A Star in the Family and Newsreel show flashes of power as each book scans recent American history, but he is in danger of repeating himself. The tale of vaudevillian Bart Goldwine, protagonist of A Star in the Family, consists of interviews conducted by Goldwine's biographer, plus longer memoiristic accounts by Goldwine. The reproduction of showbusiness patter, street talk, fan magazine prose, courtship, and family discussions is flawless in evoking the cynicism and innocence of the last generation. Showman Goldwine's impression of John F. Kennedy is abruptly ended by the assassination; his long decline thereafter is symbolically entwined with the decline of American vitality and national will. In Newsreel former Army Captain Manny "Speed" Finestone is again the victim of his times. Linked spiritually with his wartime "chief," Dwight Eisenhower, Speed cannot escape contrasting the purity of the great crusade against Hitler with the materialism of the affluent 1950s, the cold war mentality, and the slaying of President Kennedy (Chapter 29 is simply "11/22/63"). Finestone's inability to write, his failed romances with two Jewish women and an Irish girl, his unraveling into psychosis are all played against national deterioration in a cultural wasteland. Other previous themes and motifs are also present: sex and sports, the abandoning father, the Jew fighting his ethnic identity, the writer supported by his mother, the use of dialogues with other selves or fantasy-heroes. Although their repeated use suggests personal concerns that are insufficiently integrated into fiction, Faust continues to portray both interior individual lives and cultural tension with skill and sincerity.

The protagonist of Jim Dandy, Faust's first novel after a silence of nine years, first appears in the book as a child in 1915, when he is employed as a member of a black minstrel show. In time "Jim Dandy" comes to be known as Hollis Cleveland, and gets into so much trouble as a small-time Harlem gangster that he has to leave the country. His travels take him first to Europe and eventually to an Ethiopia, caught up in war with Fascist Italy. All along the way, he is mistaken for other people—including "Gallifa, the son of Ras Gugsa of Gondar… a Solomonic Prince" of the African kingdom. Despite the fact that it sometimes groans under its magic realist weight—a byproduct of the author's tampering with history—the novel is an enjoyable one, particularly in its first half.

—Frank Campenni

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