Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Citizen Tom Paine by Howard Fast

Less compelling than its subject deserves
Howard Fast is probably best known today as the author of the novel Spartacus, on which the classic Stanley Kubrick film was based, but during his seven-decade career the prolific Fast published dozens of historical novels and mysteries. Fast was an unapologetic Communist, and his liberal political activism often found its literary manifestation in freedom-fighter stories, including several books on the American Revolution, of which Citizen Tom Paine, originally published in 1943, is one of the better known and best-selling. In this novel, Fast retells the life story of Revolutionary writer Thomas Paine, author of Common Sense, The Rights of Man, and The Age of Reason.

Citizen Tom Paine might best be classified as a biographical novel rather than a historical novel because Fast doesn’t really enlarge the narrative much beyond Paine’s immediate perspective. Little poetic license is taken, and Fast introduces few if any fictional characters. Rather than a novel based on Paine’s life, the book feels more like simply a biography with feelings added in the form of an imagined interior monologue on behalf of Paine. Despite a sympathy with the author’s political views and a pre-existing fascination with Paine on my part, I found this book surprisingly dull. The entire time I was reading Fast’s novelization of Paine’s life, I couldn’t help thinking that I would have rather been reading a straight-up biography on the subject.

Fast’s depiction of Paine lapses into caricature at times, usually brought on by excessive hero-worship and hyperbolic praise. Fast credits Paine with so much fame and influence at times it seems far-fetched, as if Paine existed in a vacuum, the first person to ever conceive of individual freedom. Overall, Fast does manage to make a multidimensional character out of Paine, but the supporting cast—including Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, etc.—never rise above the level of cardboard cutouts. In his narrative voice, Fast often seems more interested in crafting a clever turn of phrase than he is in telling a story. While perhaps intended to evoke the lofty ideals of the Revolution, these flights into ostentatious prose actually distance the reader from the often gritty reality of the story being told.

On the plus side, you do learn a lot about Paine, from his working-class youth in England to his poor beginnings in America, to his fighting in the Revolutionary War and his later career as an elder statesman. The explosive impact of Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense and it’s tremendous effect on the development of an American spirit—if Fast’s depiction is accurate—is surprising given that Paine is often mentioned as an afterthought in our history books compared to other higher-profile Founding Fathers. Even more enlightening is the telling of Paine’s post-Revolution career in England and France, where he continued to fight selflessly for human rights, often at his own peril. Fast really makes the reader feel for Paine by crafting the historical facts into a tragic arc, but sometimes he does so a bit too manipulatively.

The ebook edition from Open Road Media closes with a brief biography of Fast, including photographs, which I found to be one of the more interesting parts of the book. As I was wrapping up Citizen Tom Paine, I would have considered it unlikely that I would ever read another book by Fast, but learning more about his life has increased my curiosity towards his work. I might possibly pursue another of his Revolutionary novels, but I hope it’s more compelling than this one.
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