Tuesday, 1 May 2007

Jailhouse Reading -- "The Immigrants," a novel by Howard Fast

Joseph E. Mulligan, S.J.

The following is a chapter of a journal I wrote while I was in two county jails from late January to late April, 2004, serving a 90-day sentence for “crossing the line” onto Ft. Benning, Ga., in a November 2003 protest against the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas (SOA). The School, now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), has trained thousands of Latin American soldiers, some of whom have returned to their countries to be notorious torturers, assassins, and other human-rights violators.
For more information about School of the Americas Watch: www.soaw.org

Yesterday a friend brought The Immigrants, the epic novel by the late Howard Fast. In this setting one can devote full attention to a novel and read it well in a day or two!
Howard Fast describes the rise to power and wealth of Dan Lavette, son of an Italian immigrant fisherman, in San Francisco in the first third of the twentieth century. But his drive to the top, buying up ships, hotels, a department store, and even running an airline, imprisons his heart and soul, preventing him from giving himself entirely to May Ling, the love and joy of his life.

Having married into vast wealth, Dan found his relationship with the banker’s daughter turning into hostility and emptiness. But when he falls in love with May Ling, the beautiful daughter of his Chinese bookkeeper, he encounters new life, joy, and peace.
His wife Jean, however, refuses to grant Dan a divorce, and his empire-building requires him to maintain the fiction of “proper” family life. His relationship with May Ling was deepening, but Dan would leave San Francisco for weeks on end, once without even telling her he was going. When he returned, May Ling told him that she could not take that kind of relationship for more years and so she was moving to Los Angeles with her parents and the son Dan had fathered and loved.
“I love you,” he assures May Ling.
“As much as you can love anyone, Dan.”
“You’re my whole life.”
“No. Not even ten percent of it, Dan.”
“...I know it’s been hard for you.... I get involved in things. It’s not the money. I don’t give a damn about money, you know that. But all my life I’ve been climbing Nob Hill and pushing at those bastards up there. I go to bed and dream I’m still the kid in the fishing boat with the whole damn city in flames” (p. 294). Dan’s parents had been killed in the earthquake and fire of 1906.

Dan was not only the business partner of Mark Levy but also a very close friend of him and his family. Mark’s wife, Sarah, asked Dan bluntly but out of deep concern for him: “Why don’t you leave Jean?”
“Everything Mark and I have, everything we built, a whole lifetime of making something that’s going to be the biggest thing in this state, maybe in the whole country -- and we’ve just begun, it’s just starting to roll. I leave Jean, and she washes it out. She told me this. It’s not just a question of community property -- we’re in hock almost fifteen million dollars to her father’s bank.”
“Danny, it’s just a business. It’s nothing. It’s a golem that has both of you by the throat. Why can’t you and Mark see that?”
“It’s not just a business. It’s my life. Without it, I’m nothing.”
“God help you,” Sarah whispered (p. 314).
Dan’s sense of identity and self-worth was totally tied up with his meteoric “success” in building his and Mark’s empire.

When Dan longed to start an airline, Mark suggested that they go public, issue stock, and get a listing on the New York Stock Exchange. Dan was hesitant but soon agreed, due to his exuberant confidence and need to climb higher: “We’re just beginning to crawl onto the top of this golden shitpile they call big business, and once we get there, we’re going to stake it out” (p. 346). He knew the nature of the green stuff of the pile; what drove him was power and the need to prove himself.
Arriving in Los Angeles on the first flight of his new airline, he visits May Ling and asks: “Do you believe me when I say that I love you -- more than anything on earth?”
“I believe you love me. Not more than anything on earth. I think you love the game you’re playing more” (p. 374).
Dan had just admitted it was a game: “Funny, we got this damned empire, and it’s all like a game I’m playing.” A game with high stakes -- his own humanity and a precious relationship.

Liberation from the game came to Dan in the form of the stock-market crash of 1929. He and Mark lost everything; and when he and Jean divorced, he wanted her and their two children to have all their common property.
With his last $120 in his pocket, Dan went to supper at Mark and Sarah’s. The two men were more relaxed than Sarah had seen them in years.
Mark said: “I can’t believe that it’s over.”
“I’ll drink to that,” Dan said.
“I don’t understand,” Sarah said. “In a world where men jump out of windows because they’ve been ruined, you two are celebrating.”
“It makes a kind of sense,” Mark said. “If only because it’s finally over” (p. 470).

Dan went to Los Angeles on a one-way bus ticket. Assaulted by thugs for a few dollars he had earned as a manual worker, he fought them off but ended up punching a cop who arrived on the scene. After doing ninety days in jail, Dan emerged only to spend a night around campfires on a weedy lot with a hundred other homeless and jobless men. “It takes twenty-four hours without food to make a bum, or four days without shaving,” an old man said to him. Dan admitted it.
The next morning he was seen by a fishing-boat captain who had worked for him in San Francisco and who offered Dan a job. With some money and clean clothes, he mustered all his courage and went to see May Ling. She, their son, and her parents received Dan warmly and gratefully, and he pulled out the words to share what had transpired.
May Ling watched “and listened to the single man she had loved and given herself to in the one lifetime she lived. She understood.... His life had been smashed and battered, and that was necessary. There was no other way for him to come to an accounting with himself. She understood the illusion of free will, and finally, in his own way and in his own good time, he had arrived at that understanding. It was a great triumph that he was celebrating, but that knowledge would be for the two of them and only for the two of them” (p. 490).
The stock-market crash had freed him from his false self, enabling him to live his own life with the wife and son he loved.
Leaving City Hall after their wedding, May Ling asked: “What they call the good life -- you haven’t any regrets?”
“I could do it again,” he said. Start over. Bluff and bull his way into the world of the wheeler-dealers, even making the construction of the Golden Gate bridge happen.
“No. I would have died ... in some flophouse along Main Street before I’d go back. At least it would be a death of my own choosing” (p. 493).
Now it was not merely external circumstances which had forced his liberation: his decision about his life flowed from his truly free will.

In the final paragraph of his novel, Howard Fast wrote: “ In the book of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu, which Feng Wo [May Ling’s father] had translated from the Chinese and which was published by the University of California Press, there were a few lines from the Natural Way of Lao Tzu:
Moved by deep love, a man is courageous.
And with frugality, a man becomes generous.
And he who does not desire to be ahead of the world,
becomes the leader of the world.”
One of my cellmates, a man with long hair and long beard who has lived on the streets and in jails, read The Immigrants with great interest and pleasure. “I had a feeling it would end that way,” he told me. “Dan finally found peace of mind.”

In the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, whose purpose is to free us from “inordinate attachments” so that we may choose what is in accord with our true self, the author teaches that “all things on the face of the earth are created for man to help him in attaining the end for which he is created. Hence, man is to make use of them in as far as they help him in the attainment of his end, and he must rid himself of them in as far as they prove a hindrance to him.”
The purpose of meditating on the life and work of Jesus in the gospels is to come to an intimate knowledge of him, “who has become man for me, that I may love him more and follow him more closely,” according to Ignatius. As in the case of so many others, if the rudimentary boyhood faith of Dan Lavette had been nurtured to maturity, perhaps he would never have gotten caught up in the deadly and deceptive game.

Several years ago I had the pleasure and privilege of visiting Howard Fast and his wife, Mimi, in their home in Connecticut. I was drawn to him after reading The Confession of Joe Cullen, a novel which Howard was inspired to write after reading “The Mysterious Death of Father Carney” by Anne Nelson and George Black in The Nation (August 4-11, 1984).
I had been working on the case of Fr. James (Guadalupe) Carney for some years. In 1997 and 1998 the CIA and Defense Department released declassified (and heavily expurgated) documents concerning Father Carney. The priest had worked in Honduras for eighteen years. His defense of human rights and his support of the farmers’ organizing efforts resulted in his deportation in 1979.
After working as a pastor in Nicaragua, he returned to Honduras in 1983 as a chaplain to an armed revolutionary column; the group was captured by the Honduran army, and Father Carney “was disappeared.” Although officials presented his chalice and stole to his relatives, they never explained the circumstances of his death, suggesting only that he probably starved to death in the mountains. Five years later, a former officer of the Honduran army told The New York Times that he personally had interrogated Carney (New York Times Magazine, June 5,1988).
His body has not been found, and the Honduran military officers responsible for his death have not been identified. Whether any U.S. agents or officials were involved in his disappearance remains an open question.
The most striking aspect of the CIA and Pentagon documents is the extraordinary amount of material which is blacked out.

In Fast’s novel Joe Cullen is a pilot who, on a mission in Honduras, gets to know an American priest who had been captured by the Honduran army after he had entered from Nicaragua with a revolutionary group. The Hondurans put the priest into Cullen’s aircraft and order him to take off, but during the flight they throw the prisoner out.
Cullen returns to New York City where, plagued by guilt, he confesses his complicity to a district attorney. The plot develops from there.

I was graciously received by Howard and his wife, and we spent several hours sharing our life stories and our work. I have come to know Howard better by reading his autobiography, Being Red, and several novels. Knowing his life-long struggle for justice in solidarity with the oppressed, I am not surprised to find his passion running through his beautifully crafted novels. His heart was clearly with the underdog and outsider, and he elegantly laid bare the false world of the rich and powerful.

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