Commentary Magazine

The Troubled Air, by Irwin Shaw

A Masque of Innocence
The Troubled Air.
by Irwin Shaw.
Random House. 412, pp. $3.75.


One by one, our young novelists are moving from considerations of war and its aftermath to considerations of politics. Irwin Shaw has selected a narrower canvas than Norman Mailer, but he covers it far more thoroughly. It is legitimate entirely to ignore the traditional bones of novel form with which Shaw covers his political exposition, and proceed directly to the politics itself: for Shaw’s work is in effect the presentation of a political position, an attempt to explain the peculiar political scene of the 50’s.

The 50’s, it is becoming apparent, is to be the Decade of the Great Unveiling, when everyone’s position on Communism, Communists, and fellow-travelers in the 30’s and 40’s is to be spread on the record. In the explanation each of us gives of this bit of autobiography, there is of course implied the attitude that a reasonable citizen should take to it. Shaw’s explanation is given through the medium of a liberal, a former history professor who is now the director of a radio program. Five persons working on the program have been accused of being Communists by a publication akin to Red Channels, and the liberal director is told to fire them immediately. The novel traces his efforts to discover whether the five accused Communists really are or were Communists, and to decide what he should do or think about it.

In the course of this political Odyssey, we are introduced to many familiar figures—a few stock Communists (one neurotic), an advertising agency executive who has friends in high quarters and is interested in “policy-making,” a rich self-made businessman (the sponsor) who hates Communists and dislikes liberals but will give anyone a “square deal,” actors of various shades of apoliticalism who have been tied up with one “front” or another. Much of the political conversation is witty and perceptive, and the tone of the kind of political talk that goes on in this country today is often caught very well. But all through the book we are jarred by weird happenings—weird, that is, on the assumption that Shaw is writing a political novel about America today and not a melodrama or fantasy.

For example, our liberal hero discovers his phone is being tapped. Instead, like any self-respecting American, of calling the phone company to find out what the hell is going on, or calling the police, or getting in touch with the American Civil Liberties Union, he decides the tappers must be FBI men (so far as we know, he has never done anything illegal), and that he’d better keep quiet because this is happening to many thousands of people. Then, the hero is reading the newspapers and discovers that “the jails were slowly filling up with college graduates and people you had met at nice parties in the East 60’s and 70’s.” Again the reader starts, and wonders what kind of parties these could have been and how many “college graduates” are now in jail that might not have been there a few years ago. Weirdest of all is our hero’s shocked discovery, the climax of the novel, that his closest friend and student of fifteen years before has actually been a Communist for many years—indeed, he has been the leader of the cell in the radio broadcasting industry.

Now how is it possible that a former history professor who reads the newspapers has had a friend for fifteen years and not had the slightest suspicion he was a Communist? And this in the radio industry, where up till a short time ago—as in many spheres of American cultural and intellectual life—Communist views were at least as common as any strong opposition to them? How, too, could the uncovered Communist (not a spy, only a Communist) have resisted the temptation for fifteen years to try to get his closest friend—after all, a liberal, who had once chaired a meeting of the American Students’ Union at college, and presumably an easy mark—into the movement? What can be the explanation for these mysteries? Is it that the liberal hero is a complete fool? No, this cannot be it, or at any rate Shaw does not think soafter all, he was a history professor and he is very witty. Is it that the Communist friend had excellent reasons for concealing the fact he was a Communist—though it seems all the other Communists in the radio industry knew it? Perhaps, but Shaw gives no such reasons.

Indeed, Shaw does not consider this a problem. He does not think it is a serious psychological problem, requiring the most careful explanation, that a man’s best friend should be a Communist to that man’s complete ignorance, and that a Communist should conceal his political views as well as his affiliation from his best friend of many years. Nor does Shaw think it is the novelist’s job to explain why a supposedly intelligent man should be so out of touch with what is going on in America as to take it for granted that the FBI regularly taps the phones of people who have been vaguely connected with Communist fronts, and so misreads the papers—or reads such distorted papers—as to think of jails “filling up with college graduates,” as if this “filling up” were some mysterious, inexorable process having no relation to any illegal acts. Since Shaw does not consider these to be problems, he leaves us to ask: why do the intelligent characters he creates behave like fools?

This foolishness, of course, is not personal to Shaw or his characters: it represents a point of view which is very widespread, and which is one of the predominant outlooks among liberals in this country. A key element in this point of view is the idea that we ordinary liberals just can’t understand Communists and there is no point trying. An earlier form of this theory (expressed in Carey McWilliams’ Witch Hunt) was that Communists really didn’t exist at all but were figments of people’s imagination. Shaw holds a more contemporary view: Communists do exist, but they are (1) either comic or neurotic or (2) if they are serious, they are really witches—they may well be your best friend without giving you any inkling of the fact, for true Communism is so unrelated to a person’s ordinary motivations and behavior that the true Communist is completely immune to detection.

Now this theory has some interesting consequences. For example, it implies that anyone who says he has never met a Communist in his life, when clearly he has been surrounded by them, must be considered perfectly honest, because actually you really can’t identify a Communist (this is the case of the liberal hero). I would suggest an alternative explanation: that it is Shaw who is not being completely honest. One has the odd feeling in this book that he is not telling us all he knows about his mouthpiece because if he did his theory would fall apart; that Shaw has performed a bit of self-censorship and decided it really “wasn’t important” just what the political opinions of the leading character are or were. Indeed, it comes as something of a shock to discover, when the businessman sponsor asks our hero about it directly, that at school he was involved in a variety of activities together with Communists. One feels such a salient detail should have been brought to our attention earlier; and one feels, too, that our hero, and his creator, if they had pondered their experience more closely, would have discovered that Communism is not as mysterious as they now pretend: that only a few years ago many liberal Americans spoke quite blithely of the necessity to break eggs to make an omelette and heads to make a revolution, and the mentality which could placidly support some of the most horrible crimes in history was not so alien to the liberal mind as Shaw believes. One would think a novelist who presents us with a man honestly searching for the truth would have considered more closely what his opinions had been and were. But perhaps if the search were conducted too diligently there would be no way to explain the hero’s naivety.

If Shaw is unwilling to pursue any inquiry into the life and opinions of his hero to explain his peculiar distortions in perception, it is because to Shaw himself these distortions are simple reality. Not that Shaw believes—as some of the details in the book suggest—that America is going fascist, or that Communism is not a threat to America—he rather half believes these things, and this perhaps is the chief mark of his type of liberal thinking today. He has given up in its pure form the obvious fantasies of Communist and Marxist ideology—this doctrine which claims that the facts before one’s nose are less important in explaining what is going on than facts taken from some other countries and previous times. But he has not been able quite to proceed on his own without ideology, facing the facts as they are. Consequently he, and those who think like him, have decided to take a middle course: they take their ground halfway between the error of the ideology and the truth of an existing situation and only half believe both what the ideology tells them (that America is going fascist) and what the obvious facts indicate (that Communism is actively working to destroy America).

This procedure involves the inflation of some facts to show that America may be going fascist, and the deflation of others which would indicate that Communism is really a serious matter. Among the facts Shaw inflates are: the fascist opinions of the advertising agency head, the physical violence accompanying the attack on the program—extending to the son of the sponsor. And deflated is the quite overwhelming fact that for fifteen years Communists and their supporters dominated most forms of American cultural and intellectual life, in many areas carrying on a real reign of terror against their opponents. Through all this, Shaw’s hero, we are asked to believe, slept, and he awoke only in 1951. At that time he did find a Communist: but careful not to lose his head, he decided to tread the middle path between what is largely illusion and what is stark reality.



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