Today the thought of a large, vigorous political party dedicated to the abolition of our capitalist economy seems laughable. It is difficult for those of us too young to recall it to imagine the utopian fervor that drove members of the American Communist Party to sabotage their own lives, careers and families before betraying their ideals.
Encounters with gangster-like FBI agents, parties where boisterous dock workers argued with university professors (imagine that happening today), picnics broken up by thugs shouting obscenities and wielding two-by-fours, sudden disappearances and dislocations of loved ones--these were puzzling and paranoia-inducing events for the children of Communist parents. Though now middle-aged, "red-diaper babies" such as this reviewer still sift through their memories trying to make sense of the shadowy events that wreaked havoc with their early lives. Such memories, be they first-hand or borrowed, have been put to admirable use by Mark Lapin in his intelligent and moving first novel, "Pledge of Allegiance."
The year is 1953. Nine-year-old Josh Rankin, a small, sensitive, funny-looking child with a big nose and a tendency to talk back to authority, informs his teacher that he is to be dismissed early so that he can ride a merry-go-round in a parade. The teacher, whose anti-Communism has been inflamed by the loss of a son in Korea, notices that the date is May 1. She forces Josh to reveal to the class that it is a May Day parade he will be attending and that his parents are Communists, and his classmates respond by isolating him. Demonstrating the sort of cruelty that comes so easily to children, the other boys draft a document prohibiting anyone who is a Communist or a liar from playing in their baseball league.
Josh's loneliness is already formidable. He hasn't heard from his father, Ben, the editor of the People's World (the San Francisco equivalent of the Daily Worker), since Ben went underground the year before. His mother spends most of her time organizing rallies against the McCarran Act and vigils for the Rosenbergs. His brilliant older sister torments him. It is no surprise that when a stranger rescues him from a beating at the hands of his schoolmates, and then offers to teach him to play baseball, Josh bonds with him instantly.
The stranger eventually admits that he is an FBI agent sent to learn the whereabouts of Josh's father. He offers to take the boy to a double-header at Ebbets Field, and get him Pee Wee Reese's autograph, if he will reciprocate with some clue, however small, to his father's whereabouts.
Providence provides just such a clue when Josh, barging into his room one night, discovers his mother and Leo, a friend of the family, locked in an embrace. As Leo rushes to leave, an address book containing the names of party members slips from his jacket pocket. (If such carelessness seems contrived, this reviewer knows of a similar incident where a notebook containing the names and addresses of party members was left on a subway seat and never recovered.) Josh finds the address book and, acting out his fury against these disappointing parental figures, hides it under some loose floor-boards.
We applaud Lapin for refusing to compromise his characters in order to provide a pat, happy ending. Difficult moral dilemmas rarely have satisfying solutions. It is sufficient that Josh emerges from his ordeal several steps closer to adulthood.
A tantalizing incident hints that Josh's coming-of-age may involve discovering his own homosexuality, but we never are clear whether the episode we witness is simply youthful experimentation or a true inclination toward the gay life. This ambiguity is disappointing because thematically, so much of the book involves discrimination and persecution, and not simply that of the government against party members: Josh's mother applauds a school play because it draws attention to the oppression of women; conversations about baseball revolve around the issue of black players participating in the major league. If Josh turned out to be gay, and was telling his story from that unique perspective, experiencing persecution as an adult and perhaps being forced to live a secret life analogous to his father's going underground, it would give another level of meaning to the book.
Certain of Lapin's descriptions of being a red-diaper baby--particularly those of party social functions--rang a chime of recognition for this reviewer.
" 'Let's ask this young man,' (a drunken guest) said, drawing me into the circle . . . 'Is it really five minutes to midnight?'
"I couldn't see why he needed to ask the time when they all had watches and I didn't. But Joe Lester was always asking tricky questions like that.
" 'It's nowhere near midnight,' I told him.
" 'How do you know?' he asked.
" 'Because the party just started,' I said, 'and by midnight it will be all over.'
" 'Out of the mouths of babes,' said Joe in a loud, satisfied voice."
Lapin's prose is serviceable; only when he is describing baseball does it approach the poetic:
"It looked like (Pee Wee Reese) was climbing an invisible ladder because he just kept kicking his legs and rising up higher and higher than anyone could possibly jump, and at the top of his leap he swiveled his back to the plate and stretched his arm out like it was made of rubber, and the ball smashed into his glove and I could see it so clear, the white ball against the dark leather webbing as he hung up there in the air, and it was like magic."
For this reviewer, reading "Pledge of Allegiance" was not unlike leafing through a family album, recognizing faces and postures, even when the names have been forgotten.