I'm Dying Laughing, The Humorist, by Christina Stead. New York: Henry Holt. 447 pp. $19.95. THIS is a novel about loyalty and betrayal on a political and a personal level. The protagonists are Emily and Stephen Howard, a marvelously mismatched couple with an almost desperate need to belong, and to believe in a cause that will justify their passionate commitment.
The milieu is the intellectual American Left of the 1930s and '40s, described in rich and chilling detail by an author who knew it intimately.
Christina Stead, who died in 1983, wrote most of this novel in the 1960s. She reworked and revised it for some years, and finally left it for her literary executor, R.G. Geering, to publish after her death. We are fortunate that he was able to pick up the pieces of her unwieldy manuscript, setting the mosaic in all its splendid, uneven glory.
For this book is a very important part of the Stead legacy. In many respects it can stand comparison with her acknowledged masterpiece, ``The Man Who Loved Children.'' Emily, whose productive energy becomes progressively manic and destructive, is a charismatic, larger-than-life figure, like Sam Pollit of ``The Man Who Loved Children.'' Both wish to be irresistible to their children and cannot easily draw the line against inappropriate behavior.
Both have a way with words, a private language that amuses but also irritates. Both overwhelm their spouses, who do not cope with depression in the same flamboyant style used by Emily and Sam.
Finally, both are based on real people, exaggerated but recognizable, a well-known playwright in ``I'm Dying Laughing,'' and Christina's own father in ``The Man Who Loved Children.'' Stead herself faced a question of loyalty, weighing friendship and family against a writer's presumption that lives could serve literature.
This was surely an important reason for her inability to write finis to this brilliant commentary on an amazing and underreported period she described as one of ``terrific convulsion in the USA.''
Emily, of course, is the humorist of the subtitle. Her jolly good nature grows wilder, more clownlike, as the story progresses. She who was once so entertaining becomes driven and can no longer cover her sorrow and shame with guffaws. It is painful to watch, and we ache with recognition when Stephen gently calls her ``Pagliacco.''
The Howards are not always admirable, but they are good company. We meet them in 1935 infectiously combining high living and high motives, soon becoming established in fashionable leftist society on the East Coast.
By 1945, they are living in Hollywood, where Emily has sold some stories to the studios. Here they are arrivistes, eager to be accepted by the powerful group of highly paid radical writers. The household includes, besides a Portuguese butler and maid, the Howards' three children: their son, Giles; Stephen's daughter, Olivia, from his first marriage; and his nephew Christy. Both Olivia and Christy have enormous trust funds, and while the Howards are loving and competent parents, they are also using these funds to support the family in style.
The Hollywood period climaxes at a dinner party in the elegant house of one of the inner circle of communist writers. The Howards think their invitation is a sign that they have been accepted by the left-wing elite.
Instead, by prearrangement among the host and other guests, they are severely criticized for their nonconformist party views. Threats are made to inform against them, in coming custody cases, as unworthy guardians of Olivia and Christy. The mounting horror of this scene, with its mesmerizing examples of arrogant self-righteousness, presages the Hollywood show trials of the House Un-American Activities Committee, mentioned later only in passing, where some of these accusers will themselves be accused, and two of them will go to jail.
Despised by the Left for their nonconformist views and considered dangerous by the Right for their party membership, the Howards decide to move their entire household to Europe, where the second part of the novel is set.
Stephen confesses more than once that he has been haunted since childhood by Edward Everett Hale's ``The Man Without a Country,'' and it serves as a central metaphor for both Stephen and Emily. They feel uneasy and adrift in Europe, but America is no longer congenial, either.
Even within the family, the question of belonging cannot be taken for granted. Emily and Stephen eventually lose stewardship of both daughter and nephew, not through the machinations of the Hollywood cabal, but because of their own excesses.
Their life in Europe is a shambles, but to return to the States they must renew their passports. This means naming friends as party members, and individually, but with similar rationalizations, they do.
Despite increasingly grotesque efforts to remain true to family, friends, country, party, and ideals, the Howards betray them all. In a 1973 interview, with a naturalist's dispassion and clarity, Stead described Stephen and Emily: ``At the same time they wanted to be on the side of the angels, good communists, good people, and also to be very rich. Well, of course, they came to a bad end.''
Ann Karnovsky is doing research on Christina Stead.