Monday, December 6, 2010

Roar Lion Roar -- Irvin Faust

Irvin Faust (b. 1924) was my guidance counselor in High School, and was a prolific writer of short stories and novels. One of his novels, The Steagle, was made into a movie, and he was nominated for an O’Henry prize.

Like many writers, Faust started off writing in obscurity and found some measure of success, only to end his career in obscurity. When he found his voice he began to publish in excellent journals and magazines. Jewish and writing in the post war years, in his first collection of short stories Roar Lion Roar (1961) one of the pieces appeared in the Paris Review and another The Saturday Evening Post. His last published novel in the early 90s, after a ten year publishing hiatus, received generally poor reviews and Faust has published only a few pieces of short fiction since that time. The last novel, Jim Dandy, was supposed to be Faust’s comeback, but instead it appeared to be his swan song (one review in EW is bad; one in VQR is good). Currently all of his books are out of print.

What happened to Irvin Faust? An answer to this question can be seen in the strengths and weaknesses of his first book, “Roar Lion Roar.” Readers today will have difficult work wading through Faust’s fixations with popular culture of the 1940s and 1950s. This is seen in abundance in the first story “Philco Baby” which is rich in arcane pop culture references that quickly bury a reader trying to find meaning in them. “The Duke Imlach Story” suffers from the same flu, revolving around songs no one knows any longer, and pop references that must be googled to make sense.

Yet many vices have inside them the kernel of virtue. Roar Lion Roar is fixed in a time, a place, and a certain set of people that give it a vivid identity. The pages literary roar with this life, and pulse with New York City of the 40s, 50s, 60s, to a measure seldom found today, where literature is squeamish about being too local, unless it is talking advantage of sub-culture’s identity to give voice to the voiceless. Roar Lion Roar dives headfirst into detail, and if the reader can get over the sometimes difficult and embarrassing sense of the out-datedness of the stories, there are real gems in this collection.

In fact, this book has something that is hard to pin down to specific description. It has a sense that is hard to forget. Reading the collection, Faust invests his stories with a touch of levity, a sense of surety; as if this must happen, and this can carry the dead weight of the pieces, and even gives us something to measure life and art. Faust takes the plight of all of us seriously, but he keeps it all moving along. For the short story writer, there are important things to learn from Faust regarding pacing, plot, structure, and manner.

I sat across from Faust when I was eighteen (who we called Dr. Faust, without irony, he has a PhD) and he gave me the best advice for my future that he could. I was not, as the early Zionists would say, good human material. He tried, but institutional advice hardly bears any fruit. Neither did his. He dissuaded me from being a visual artist, explaining how difficult the arts were. I didn’t take the bait. I’m just like him. My writing fanny is out there. And like him, I’ve been elated by writing and taken some lumps.

1 comment:

  1. It's tough, but a writer has to fail doing what has to be done. In the 50's high art and popular culture were converging. Today, everything is brought down to the mundane, the marketable, but in the wake of Joyce and Duchamp, and in the context of America's imperial decades, the pop as material for high art, alchemical metamorphoses, was exciting and viable. Writing about popular culture also preserves it. We live in micro worlds and writing can capture the micro world lost in mass amnesis. I guess the problem would be that of the fossil.