Whatever they did,” insists a character in David Evanier’s bitterly incisive novel Red Love, ”they didn’t do it.” ”They” are Solly and Dolly Rubell, the archetypal ”Jew Communists” — odious phrase — of the ’50s, convicted of passing nuclear secrets to the Russians and executed for treason in 1954. (And clearly based upon Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.)
Ah, but here they did do it. There’s the rub. Red Love assumes what many of the novels and nonfiction books inspired by the Rosenberg case (from E.L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel to Tema Nason’s recent Ethel: The Fictional Autobiography) have labored to deny: that those leftists did their damnedest to provide the Soviet Union with the weapons it needed to end the American nuclear monopoly.
Written in a brisk, slangy style reminiscent of John Dos Passos’ U.S.A. and the early novels of Saul Bellow, Red Love dramatizes not so much the trial and execution of the secret-sharers as the psychological and moral climate in which they lived. Told in overlapping short takes from several points of view, Evanier’s novel is a tragicomedy of good intentions gone mad.
Evanier’s Dolly and Solly aren’t just Communists, you see, they’re Stalinists. As second-generation Russian immigrants who grew up during the Depression and in the shadow of the Holocaust, they fell prey to a seductive form of political fundamentalism that purported to explain the world in terms of a vast historical melodrama. By the time we meet them, Solly and Dolly — like true believers everywhere — have begun to rationalize everything rather than surrender their ideological certitude and the life of bohemian fellowship that goes with it. Although many thousands left the party in the wake of revelations about Stalin, no mere fact — not the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939, not the show trials, the purges, the pogroms, not the gulags — can shake Solly and Dolly’s faith in the Soviet Utopia. ”What I am doing will benefit millions and millions of little boys and girls,” writes Solly in a letter to be delivered to his children after his execution. ”Up to the very last minute liars have tried to convince Mommy and me that the Soviet Union is a bad place. But we know it is tops.”
For all its accuracy about this particularly myopic strain of leftism, Red Love contains no hint of smugness. The Rubells’ moral obtuseness is matched by that of the frauds, opportunists, and anti-Semites (overt and covert) who used the couple’s crime for less than admirable purposes of their own. A