Robert Birnbaum, a critic who writes for the literary website Identitytheory.com and who has interviewed Furst several times, said, "He's a very moral writer. He throws in detail and atmosphere so that the reader goes through it all with him, but it's a moral issue for him."
Furst traces his breakthrough to a recognition that morality -- a fusty, old-fashioned word for a contemporary writer -- is literature's beating heart.
"In college they made me read Matthew Arnold, who said that if there is no moral drive to fiction, it's no good, and to that I said, 'Ugh,' " Furst declared, twisting his face. "But you know what? He was right. Dead-on right. As soon as I had some kind of emotional, moral purpose, I started writing books that made me very proud."
His epiphany came from a 1983 trip for Esquire magazine to what was then the Soviet Union. "I saw what happens to people in a police state," Furst said. "Moscow was the darkest place I've ever been. I had a political fury. I thought, 'How I hate you, for what you do to people.' My wife said the husband she sent to Russia never came home."
The evolution of Furst's characters from elegant bystanders to scruffy freedom fighters -- albeit secret ones, moving as they do through midnight fogs -- is analogous to the maturation of the century itself, as one of his characters notes. "Degrave looked down. 'The sad truth is,' he said quietly, 'a country can't survive unless people fight for it.' " And so Furst's novels march along, straddling the border between then and now, between yesterday and today, prodding their reluctant heroes to rouse themselves to an unlikely pitch of selflessness and sacrifice.
Fiction, too, needs that sort of pitchfork in the pants, Furst said. "There has to be some engine" pushing novels along, he declared. "Something inside. Some cranking motor."
"Honor," "decency," "justice," "valor" -- the words seem stiff with age and a bit too showy, like Grandpa's dress uniform stashed in the attic. Yet somehow, like that dusty sartorial relic, they still fit.
Julia Keller is cultural critic at the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune company.