This is Philip Roth's brilliant follow-up to 1997's American Pastoralist and it shares many features with the former book.
Both share a narrator, Roth's literary alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman. Both deal with favorite Roth issues of betrayal, libido, Jewish self-hatred, and both are set in instantly recognizable yet strangely alien parts of American history. This continuity of issues has led some critics to level charges of literary narcissism. This would be a justifiable accusation if these issues were in some way cheap, old, or not turned by Roth into universals. Roth rises to these challenges brilliantly.
I Married a Communist is set in between the fascinating 1948 election (really the end of the end for Communism in American politics), and the Joe McCarthy House Un-American Activities Committee era. This was the time of the boom to beat all, yet Roth is never slow to poke the pale white underbelly of modern America, the friction between private actions and public life being a staple of his work.
The Communist of the title is Ira Ringold, who in his World War II conversion to communism, in his rise from the factory floor to upper-middle class excess as a famous radio star ("Iron" Rinn), and in his ultimate betrayal at the hands of Richard Nixon and other McCarthyites, features as a kind of representative of American Communism. But the book is far more complex than this representation of political idealism smashed by the momentum of economic good times. It gets far more personal than that.
"Thousands and thousands of Americans destroyed in those years, political casualties, historical casualties...But I don't remember anybody else being brought down quite the way that Ira was. It wasn't on the great American battlefield he would himself have chosen for his destruction. Maybe, despite ideology, politics, and history, a genuine catastrophe is always personal bathos at the core. Life can't be impugned for any failure to trivialize people. You have to take your hat off to life for the techniques at its disposal to strip a man of his significance and empty him totally of his pride."
This is where Roth's genius truly shines. It's the individuals in the book, each sketched from multiple angles, that make it a triumph. Roth's technique of sliding around a key point in the narrative from various totally convincing points of view will be familiar to those who know his work. It's the seemingly effortless nature of this incredibly difficult task (coaxing the reader to take all sides and none) that is one of the joys of reading Roth. The story is told through an epic, six-night conversation, fifty years after the fact, yet the reader will hardly notice. When the story slides across decades the reader goes too, drawn by the power of the characterizations.
One also cannot read Roth without a feeling of awakening, a feeling of being privy to great secrets! He weaves an unstinting, intellectually and emotionally devastating criticism of McCarthyism and all its hangers-on deep into the narrative. This about Nixon's funeral:
"Then the realists take command, the connoisseurs of deal making and deal breaking, masters of the most shameless ways of undoing an opponent, those for whom moral concerns must always come last, uttering all the well-known, unreal, sham-ridden cant about everything but the dead man's real passions. Clinton exalting Nixon for his 'remarkable journey' and, under the spell of his own sincerity, expressing hushed gratitude for all the 'wise counsel' Nixon had given him. Governor Pete Wilson assuring everyone that when most people think of Richard Nixon, they think of his 'towering intellect.' Dole and his flood of lachrymose clichés. 'Doctor' Kissinger, high-minded, profound, speaking in his most puffed-up unegoistical mode--and with all the cold authority of that voice dipped in sludge--quotes no less prestigious a tribute than Hamlet's for his murdered father to describe 'our gallant friend.' 'He was a man, take him for all, I shall not look upon his like again.'"
Roth's commentary on American Communists is equally clear-eyed and no-holds-barred.
"Ira obeyed every one-hundred-eighty-degree shift of policy. Ira swallowed the dialectical justification for Stalin's every villainy.... He managed to squelch his doubts and convince himself that his obedience to every last one of the party's twists and turns was helping to build a just and equitable society in America. His self-conception was of being virtuous. By and large I believe he was--another innocent guy co-opted into a system he didn't understand. Hard to believe that a man who put so much stock in his freedom could let that dogmatizing control his thinking. But my brother abased himself intellectually the same way they all did. Politically gullible. Morally gullible. Wouldn't face it. Shut their minds, the Iras, to the source of what they were selling and celebrating. Here was somebody whose greatest strength was his power to say no. Unafraid to say no and to say it into your face. Yet all he could ever say to the party was yes."
But let not the potential reader feel that the book is in any way weighed down by these issues. This is the backdrop to a character drama that is by turns warm, funny, chilling, and clever. Roth's characters are overwhelmed by each other, and by their own machinations, but never by the scenery. But what scenery! Highly recommended.
I Married a Communist, by Philip Roth, Houghton Mifflin, New York, 1998. ISBN 0 09 928783 8
Thanks to the following websites for the text of the quotes: