Oh God, another Philip Roth novel. Anyone who hasn't been keeping track might be excused for thinking that this author, 23 books into a career thick with outrage courted and won, has become just another old white guy whose semiannual blurt nobody bothers to read anymore. (Norman Mailer, anyone?) But that, as Roth's old target Richard Nixon once remarked, would be wrong. His last four books, all award winners, have shown Roth exerting increasing control over his material, with Patrimony, a graceful, bittersweet memoir of his father's death, and the sweeping elegy American Pastoral, a memorial to the death of the dream of Jewish assimilation, being the standouts. While I Married a Communist (Houghton Mifflin) doesn't cover the epic canvas Pastoral so effortlessly painted, it's nonetheless an intimate, humane novel that handles politics both international and sexual with impressive seriousness: high second-tier Roth, and well worth reading.
As usual, the world filters down to us through the eyes and ears of Roth amanuensis Nathan Zuckerman. Yet despite the author's numerous pleas to abdicate this narrative throne--"I've had my story"; "There were no more difficulties I wished to create"--Zuckerman isn't going anywhere. His inspiration by and successive betrayals of the novel's major characters (his father, Murray, Ira) map his path to "the orphanhood that is total, which is manhood. When you're out there in this thing all alone."
Indeed, the novel's engine is perfidy--the ways in which we steal from parents and mentors, then inevitably disappoint them with our failure to put those stolen goods to use. Roth tells that story through the life of Ira Ringold, the younger brother of Zuckerman's inspiring high-school English teacher, Murray Ringold, whom an aged Zuckerman meets two months before Murray's death. Catching up on old times--Zuckerman has retired to a comfortable isolation in New England--Murray relives his brother's sudden rise and equally sudden collapse. Although the structure can grow needlessly elaborate, what with Zuckerman providing us with Murray's version of what Ira said and felt, Roth generally manages to keep all three voices distinct.
An uneducated roughneck, Ira dropped out of high school, mined zinc, and even made fudge before finding his mission during World War II, when, under the tutelage of a fellow soldier, he became a devout Communist. After the war, Ira becomes a successful Lincoln impersonator, "a great big walking conscience" who spreads the populist word in person and over the airwaves to an America rapidly scurrying rightward. He then marries the star of his radio show, a former silent-movie actress named Eve Frame. Eve, as her name alone might portend, goes on to betray Ira, creating a fanciful tell-all account that destroys Ira's professional career, forces Murray to go to court to regain his teaching job, and even costs Zuckerman a Fulbright grant.
There's little suspense, since we know what's going to happen from the opening pages. As we wade through thickets of talk, toward an expected result, the book takes on historical and familial themes, both compelling. On one hand, it is an intellectual autobiography: Drawn to "heroic suffering" as a teen, Zuckerman elevated the masses by penning common-man agitprop cribbed from the works of Norman Corwin and Howard Fast. On the other hand, the novel is an accounting of the painful debts that inevitably accrue in human relations. Why didn't Murray steer Ira clear of Eve, Zuckerman wonders. "That must be what brothers are for," comes the answer. "Not to stand on ceremony about the bizarre."
Taken together, Roth's last three books form a kind of bodily trilogy: Sabbath's Theater pondered the workings of the groin (a Roth obsession from early on); American Pastoral, the heart; and this one, the head. In the truest sense, the personal here really is political. What brings Ira down is not so much his opinions, which he propounds stridently, repetitively, and completely without nuance--"It's not as simple as that," remarks Zuckerman's father when Ira engages him in a discussion of the Henry Wallace campaign--but his muleheaded decision to bind himself to Eve. His "heroic purity," his inability to modulate, make him fantastically loyal and fanatically stubborn. And they drive him irrevocably from Eve when she cannot break her suffocating relationship with her adult daughter.
This leads us down into the mire of autobiography, which is what the reader most wants to unearth here anyway: Is patrician, self-hating Jewish actress Eve Frame (a.k.a. immigrant's daughter Chava Fromkin) really Roth ex-wife Claire Bloom, author of last year's life-with-Phil exposé, Leaving a Doll's House? Probably. Roth certainly gets his licks in, lambasting Eve as "someone from whom life itself had escaped," and "a woman whose deepest sense is her sense of incapacity." And her book? If it wasn't ghostwritten, it was "the aging actress's last great career--shouting her hatred in the street." Though there are hints of compassion, Eve is at best pathetic, and her desolate end summarizes Roth's supremely uncharitable vision of her.
Yet there are concordances in Bloom's and Roth's depictions of their relationship. Bloom's self-portrait very much resembles Roth's Eve Frame in her dependency on masculine craziness, and Bloom's Roth seems a spiritual twin of Ira. Along with his swipes at Eve, Roth paints Ira as more than just complicit in his victimization. In a sense, he actually invites it, demands it, perhaps even requires it to fulfill his vision of the universe. In this regard, Roth's latest isn't simply the puling Why me? that tainted many of the author's earlier novels, which envision innocent Phil set upon by scheming harridans with no greater mission than his destruction. Just like his creator, Ira never shuts up, can't shut up in his quixotic struggle to win the world to his way of thinking. With bluster as his sole intellectual mode, Ira never understands why the world will fail to hear his argument against it. Ultimately, the same uncomprehending outrage that powers his passion destroys him.