Cambridge Book Review

[Issue #3, Spring & Summer 1999]




I Married a Communist
By Philip Roth
Houghton Mifflin Co., 1998

Reviewed by Jeremy Harrell


Much has been made of the apparent similarities between Philip Roth and Nathan Zuckerman, Roth's nom d'ironie and the narrator of this novel. Most readers of Roth, however, are by now accustomed to Zuckerman and have accepted the futility of puzzling over where Philip ends and Nathan begins; the hall of mirrors aspect of Roth's recent novels has become, at least for me, a welcome discomfort. Roth without Zuckerman -- without the nagging question of how genuinely the tale is being told -- would kill the fun of reading his work.

In the last few books Zuckerman, older and far less randy, has retreated from society to give himself over to memory and imagination. In I Married a Communist, Zuckerman again raises the Jewish Atlantis -- the Weequahic section of Newark at mid-century -- this time to tell the story of Ira Ringold.

He is prompted to recall Ira, years after his death, when he runs into Murray Ringold, Ira's older brother and Nathan's high school English teacher. Together Murray and Zuckerman piece together Ira's story, giving the novel its shape.

Ira is Nathan's boyhood idol. Star of the most popular -- and populist -- radio program of the late 40s, "The Free and the Brave," Ira (known on air as Iron Rinn) is a closet Communist given to exhausting rants of regurgitated party line. He marries a socialite radio starlet, Eve Frame, and the two settle down to an unabashedly bourgeois marriage in Greenwich Village. The tension between Ira's incessantly professed radicalism and his overwhelming desire to have a picture-book family is the kind of contradiction on which Roth thrives.

Roth also feasts on acidic family conflict: Frame's fragile self-image hangs on her daughter's opinion of her; Sylphid, her daughter, finds nothing more delectable than a maniacal distaste for her mother. Ira and his dream of domestic bliss emerge the losers in the mother-daughter battle.

Their marriage foundering, Eve publishes a salacious tell-all outing Ira as a Communist. Ira is blacklisted and becomes a poster-boy for Entertainment Jews Gone Moscow.

We learn the essentials of the plot in the first chapter. The remaining seven testify to Roth's literary gifts. His sentences have never been crisper; his imagery is lean; their effect is unquestionable. In telling Ira's story Murray and Zuckerman reveal as much about themselves as about Ira; and in telling the stories of all three, Roth lays bare the apparatus of fiction. He revels in showing the way we tell stories is as important as the stories themselves.

Murray and Zuckerman's overlapping narratives combine with Roth's meticulous reconstruction of the early Cold War era to assemble a tragic American character. In the same way he eulogized Swede Levov in American Pastoral, Roth presents Ira as a victim of an inevitable hit-and-run with history. But he's not a victim of McCarthyism -- though Roth wonderfully recreates the paranoia and solipsism that fueled HUAC. Ira gets broadsided by the whole of history -- his own, Eve's, his family's, America's, the Jews'.

Roth joins Zuckerman, Murray, and the reader in exploring the wreckage.

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From I Married a Communist
Revenge. Nothing so big in people and nothing so small, nothing so audaciously creative in even the most ordinary as the workings of revenge. And nothing so ruthlessly creative in even the most refined of the refined as the workings of revenge. [p. 184]

[Order I Married a Communist from Amazon.com.]

Other titles by Philip Roth.

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Jeremy Harrell is a writer living in Madison, Wisconsin.


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