Red Love, by David Evanier
Black (& Red) Comedy
Red Love. A Novel.
by David Evanier.
Scribners. 340 pp. $19.95.
The case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg has been the subject of novels, plays, movies, and docudramas, not to mention numerous scholarly studies and an even greater body of polemical works. While the most serious investigations have made an overwhelming case for Julius Rosenberg’s guilt as a Soviet spy, fictional appraisals have almost always assumed the couple’s innocence, or at the very least portrayed the Rosenbergs as idealists victimized by McCarthyism. Such artistic depictions have been suffused with moral outrage and a damp and thoroughly bogus sentimentalism: Julius and Ethel are regularly seen as loving parents, champions of peace, advocates of racial equality; their persecutors as unprincipled, pitiless men whose hounding of the couple was orchestrated by unseen, sinister forces.
What concerns the novelist David Evanier is less the Rosenbergs’ guilt or innocence—he assumes they were traitors—than their image as martyrs. His goal in this wild, irreverent book is to demolish the essential myth of the Rosenbergs as a couple who died upholding the highest principles of patriotic American dissent. Where their apologists have beatified them (and their critics often demonized them), Evanier treats the Rosenbergs as pathetic and self-deluded people who in the end sacrificed themselves for an absurd cause and for one of history’s greatest criminals.
Evanier, the author of a first-rate collection of stories, The One-Star Jew, has written the first anti-Communist black comedy. The main personalities in the real-life Rosenberg drama—Harry Gold, Morton Sobell, David Greenglass, Roy Cohn, Judge Irving Kaufman—appear here in thinly fictionalized guise like characters from one of Woody Allen’s early films, as does a ragtag collection of Communist-party apparatchiks, former party members turned professional anti-Communists, FBI agents, black radicals, and a few right-wing bigots for good measure.
There is, for instance, Strugin, the hack party intellectual (patterned, perhaps, on the historian Herbert Aptheker), who tells the narrator that in the Soviet Union his thinning hair will grow back “as a matter of course.” There is Maury Ballinzweig, patterned after Morton Sobell, the man convicted along with the Rosenbergs but spared the death penalty, who confides in the narrator how proud he is that his mother refused to identify a man who mugged her because he was black. There is Solly Rubell, patterned after Julius Rosenberg (the character based on Ethel is called Dolly Rubell), waxing sentimental over the fact that in the Soviet Union “Yiddish was spoken everywhere by many workers and by many soldiers in the Red Army as well.” There is Jerry Burns, whose profession is to testify against his former comrades, slipping away from his hotel to perform as a vaudeville comic to the delight of Senator Joseph McCarthy, the most unexpected of guests. And there are the tattered loyalists of the cause who, years later, having sifted through thousands of Freedom of Information Act files without uncovering evidence of the couple’s innocence, demand: “Give us the right pages!”
This is, then, a work of considerable imagination and no little humor. But the humor coexists with more sober sections in which the essence of the Communist experience is conveyed through the tragic experiences of individual party members. Evanier, who demonstrates a historian’s familiarity with the Rosenberg case and with the radical milieu of the period, has immersed himself in the atmosphere of the American Communist community, with its cynical intellectuals, disillusioned renegades, picket-line fanatics, and especially its veteran loyalists, old men and women desperate to believe in something: if not Stalin, then Castro, the Black Panthers, Jack Henry Abbott.
In Sid Smorg, a character based on Harry Gold and one of the most vividly portrayed figures in Red Love, we see the classic case of a man drawn to espionage through sexual frustration and a desperate need to be appreciated by the more successful. For another character, Sammy Kuznekow, a career in the party leads to the Spanish Civil War, an experience which destroys all illusions about the Communist movement. An even more depressing fate awaits Antonio Carelli, a young Communist from Buffalo, who, together with his father, a devoted Communist and opponent of Mussolini, is granted political asylum by the Soviet Union only to be swallowed up by the gulag.
For Evanier, Communism’s great crime is the damage it did to the honest but innocent believers who in the end were inevitably betrayed. In Red Love, idealists like Sammy Kuznekow watch their comrades dispatched to slaughter while back home, Communists like the Rubell/Rosenbergs blather on about racial justice in the Soviet Union and Stalin’s commitment to a Jewish homeland. Antonio Carelli, after his return from the gulag, is told by an old party sympathizer, a man whose daughter Carelli once coveted, that he, too, has lost faith in the Soviet Union. “But at least now we have Cuba,” he confides in the stunned Carelli, and he drags this hapless victim of Stalin to a poetry reading by his granddaughter, just returned from a stint in the sugar-cane fields as a member of the Venceremos Brigade. As the elderly Communists in attendance howl with appreciation, Prim Rosenbaum serves up a mindless rap on the splendors of Cuban Communism (“We prayed in the sun in front of the healthiest cows I’d ever seen”) and the unrelieved evil of life back home:
Nagasaki is a Birmingham church, call it . . . Nagasaki is a Manhattan welfare hotel, call it . . . Nagasaki is a drunken man in the street, call it . . . call it, you better push it, pull it, grab it, you better call it, call it, peace, y’all.
Much has been written recently about the influence exerted by the Communist movement on the political radicalism of the 60’s and 70’s. Yet here, in a few witty (if depressing) paragraphs, Evanier has succeeded in illuminating the pernicious essence of the relationship between the despised Communist party and the supposedly more independent-minded New Left. It is because of moments like this that Red Love ranks as an important literary account of what the Czech writer Josef Skvorecky has termed “the most influential mythology of our strange century.”