In the 1970s, Philip Roth, already established as one of the country’s important writers, began a series of novels that suggested the Central European surrealism for which he felt affinities and perhaps a distant filial regard. Hitherto, in such novels as When She Was Good, he had been the master of an intense but mainly traditional realism. With the political satire Our Gang, then with The Breast and The Great American Novel, he began to experiment with breaking down conventions. Introducing a writer al-ter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, in The Ghost Writer, he conducted Zuckerman through a number of novels employing self-conscious narrative techniques and episodes of story within story designed to shake the reader’s balance and manipulate his relationship with the work in hand.
The reader’s equilibrium has been fair game since the beginning of fiction, and Philip Roth’s voice has always exercised great authority. As an aphorist, and entertainer, as an illusionist possessed of powers over the mind’s eye, Roth had few rivals even twenty years ago. He was one of those writers able to color and control, without apparent effort, that no-man’s-land between life and language where the satisfactions of fiction reside. Several times, during the Seventies and Eighties, he appeared to be calling down an artillery barrage, preparatory to a foray across the wire. One day, it seemed, his fierce glance would appear around the bindings of the book, he’d be on the loose, and in our laps. In 1990, for example, when Philip Roth, the writer, generally known to be married to a woman named Claire, published a novel in dialogue about characters named Philip and Claire, it was hard not to believe someone was pushing the envelope.
Preoccupation with different modes of fiction, like the sudden impulse toward innovation, is often a bad sign in writers. It can indicate a flagging of energy, a dangerous ennui, a weariness with the writerly self that has to be chained to its oars every day. The assumption by a novelist that his life, his fortunes and hassles with his ladylove are ipso facto the stuff of literature does not always augur well either.
But, as anyone who followed his work knew, something else was going on with Roth. His energy, that intimidating mixture of powerful, almost compulsive narrative drive and manic but modulated virtuosity, was hardly in eclipse; on the contrary, it was increasing in intensity. And the calculated liberties he was taking with the conventions of narrative and authorial presence had, for the most part, none of the feyness that have become associated with Writer’s Liberation, the we’re-all-too-smart-for-storybooks number that has become so tiresome. Roth can probably be accused of many sins, but pretentiousness is not one of them.
The power of Roth’s prose stands up to any amount of play with technique. His indulgence in “personifictions” and “false confessions,” or with the fictionalization of his own authorial identity in Operation Shylock, has served to increase the immediacy of his work rather than to intellectualize or abstract it. Indeed, it seems too much to call them indulgences at all in an author so serious he can make half his contemporaries seem like children’s writers-so serious, and so shocking, in an age that considers itself beyond shock, while also being so funny at a time when hardly any other author can make one laugh. If he chooses to keep turning the screw, modifying the machine in the interest of high performance, well, what works, works. For many readers, Roth’s most recent books are his most satisfying.
And in many ways he has gone on surprising us. Roth was, after all, the fast-talking absurdist who once declared American reality virtually too fractured and loony to be recorded in fiction. Any “sense of place” in his work should have referred to some cosmopolitan area of the sensibility whose geographical determinants were entirely fortuitous, the externals of someone else’s world. Greater Newark was a place, readers would have thought, that his heroes would transcend and to which they would bid an ironic farewell. Yet, most recently, the Newark of his childhood occurs with hallucinatory vividness. It appears as the lost city, the stained, swirling nightmare-wonderland of outsized machines and vast industrial landscapes that every American of urban origins remembers in his dreams. Gone now or rotting out of recognition, the city was a playground and memory palace, in whose interstices its children made their lives while imagining it into the shapes of a romantic future the preceding generation could never have conceived. For millions of Americans, the once-again displaced descendants of migrants or immigrants, the ruined streets and dead factories represent the wasteland into which youth and hope have vanished.
Who would have thought, forty years ago, it would be Philip Roth, the gentrified bohemian, who would bring remembered lilacs out of that dead land for us, mixing memory and desire? But the fact is that, besides doing all the other marvelous things he does, Roth has managed to turn his bleak part of Jersey and its people into a kind of Jewish Yoknapatawpha County, a singularly vital microcosm with which to address the twists and turns of the American narrative. In his most recent work, he has turned his aging New Jerseyites into some of the most memorable characters in contemporary fiction. Mickey Sabbath of Sabbath’s Theater, living by the words of The Tempest’s Prospero invoked in the book’s epigraph, “Every third thought shall be my grave,” is a breathtaking invention, a brilliant, tortured rendering of perception as its own punishment. With American Pastoral, Roth again made something extraordinary out of the unhappy history of Newark and its environs. He created a good man-no easy business in fiction-whose life and aspirations seemed to represent the worthiest hopes of his generation and then described his character’s ruin as all the dreams his diligence and decency earn come true and turn to dust.
Like the creator of the original Yoknapatawpha County, Roth came to his career within an established literary tradition. Faulkner’s grandfather, the model for Colonel Sartoris, had written a “reply” to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Roth, in the 1950s, was finding a place in the American Jewish literary tradition that was, in the Fifties, then coming into its own. Somewhat like Faulkner and the Southern writers who followed him, the necessities of Roth’s work led him to exploit an established vein while describing the social processes through which the sources of that vein disappeared.
The American Jewish experience was psychologically and socially complex, hopeful, paradoxical, and charged with ironies, insecurities, and resentments. Its idiom was an edgy, earthy irony, not altogether unsentimental and leavened with anger. Today, with so much of Roth’s work on record, it seems possible to examine that work in the setting of the tradition from which it emerges. Maybe it’s a stretch to connect the sentimentalized creations of Clifford Odets with Roth’s driven and vastly ambiguous creations, but at least in their discontents and aspirations it may not be stretching too far. Swede Levov, the suffering, tormented conformist in American Pastoral, shares a few characteristics with Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman-a readiness to buy into the American dream, the torture of guilt, a sense of having, at some terrible, disastrous moment, failed the offspring he was assuring a share of the golden future. There is also, in Roth’s manic rage at folly, something reminiscent of Nathanael West, who brought the same fiendish, inside-outside observation to American reality.
Ten years after the Second World War, ethnic America was still in place by and large. The solid, segregated South persisted. “WASPS,” only recently defined, were to be perceived at their games, the term being restricted to a horsy upper-class fragment that excluded several tens of millions of working-class Anglo-Americans. The Irish, not yet everybody’s darlings, were often considered a surly, unprogressive lot, of whom figures like Father Coughlin and Senator McCarthy were not wholly unrepresentative. Like the Southern writer, the American Jewish writer proceeded from a milieu that was then much more private and marginal than it has since become. If Southerners chose to be remote and secretive, clinging to their separate history with a kind of mythic lyricism, Jewish writers faced an America that ostensibly offered a liberty, equality, and fraternity which were not invariably forthcoming. The persecution and prejudice of two continents loomed large in their folk tradition, and the horrors of what had recently happened in Europe were only beginning to be manifest. Faith in America’s promise was coupled with an impulse to test the limits of its sense of justice.
When Roth began to write, young Jews often had their first close experience of Gentiles in the armed forces or at college. Today, when elderly WASP gentlemen are seen dandling their interracial grandchildren beside beach cottages in New England shore enclaves, young middle-class persons of Jewish background often enough encounter Gentiles among their close relatives, as half-siblings or stepparents in families extended not so much by generational ties as by suburban serial polygamy. Roth has spent much of his career recounting how such changes have been taking place. Often the world he describes seems to be one in which both the darkest fears and the brightest hopes of his generation have equally come to pass.
Back in the days of Portnoy, when the sex-obsessed hero’s fantasies about the distant desirability of Gentile women were a source of comedy, Roth was carrying the Jewish tradition into new and alarming ground. Some Jewish readers and community leaders, offended and presumably anxious over what Gentiles might think, went so far as to accuse the young writer of self-directed prejudice. Actually, if we give in to the inquisitorial impulse of the present age, and seek to construe prejudice in Roth’s work, we would have to pause over the presentation of his female characters. Normally, we might keep our hands off the biographical aspects of a writer under review. We seem, however, to have been directed not to ignore them, invited in, as it were, by Roth novels like Deception.
In her memoir of marriage with Roth, Claire Bloom describes the wife in My Life as a Man as representing Roth’s “shiksa to end all shiksas.” If the Philistine princesses acquired by Roth’s heroes in their adventures among strange tents do not necessarily reveal their riddles to the enemy, they certainly make use of them with sufficient inventiveness and malice to drive the unfortunate young Jews to the point of madness. But for alleged misogyny, no Roth “shiksa” can touch, for pure infernal evil fury, the terrifying Rita Cohen in American Pastoral, a child of hell so implacable and demented she can only be one of those creatures of Hebrew folklore, the offspring given birth to by Lilith through misspent semen.
I Married a Communist happens to be about a man whose wife, an actress, has written a hysterical and unfair book about him, slandering him and betraying his secrets. It seems necessary to remark on this, given the author’s insistence on creating a kind of parallel structure with his biography. Still, regardless of whatever covert barbs and references to “real life” it may contain-and there seem to be a few-I Married a Communist is basically another Newark story, another example of Roth’s hometown kids’ adventures among the beguilements and absurdities that await them in the larger world of postwar America.
Like the story of Swede Levov in American Pastoral, the events in I Married a Communist are imparted to (and partly, it seems, imagined by) Roth’s writerly alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman. Zuckerman learns it all from the deceased central character’s older brother, Murray Ringold, whom he meets at a summer college course for the elderly in rural New England. For pages and pages the young Zuckerman quotes Murray’s reminiscences. Roth has a habit of not paying too much attention to the controlling devices of his narrative. He lets this one slide a bit too, and we really ought to object in the name of sound novelistic construction. The fact is however that, as usual, the virtuoso riffs, anecdotes, and insights that move the story distract us from any minor fissures in the narrative structure.
Ira Ringold is a rugged giant of a man from Newark’s mainly Italian First Ward, a milieu Roth evokes with all the detail and color that have lately been a feature of his imagination’s obsession with its origins. In Ira’s brother’s opinion, it was his experience as a First Ward outsider, a Jew among Italians, that developed his aggressive and combative nature. Murray tells us that
what respect he got…he got from playing ball. But the fights? From then on he was in fights all the time. That’s when his extremism began.
And according to Murray, Ira’s First Ward origins had its positive side. It kept him from a career in the mob. “It was a blessing, you know,” Murray says,
that we didn’t grow up in the Third Ward with the poor Jews…. There Ira wouldn’t have been the official outcast among the kids. If only because of his size, he probably would have come to [the Jersey crime boss] Longy Zwillman’s attention. From what I understand, Longy…was a lot like Ira growing up: furious, a big, menacing boy who also quit school, who was fearless in a street fight, and who had the commanding looks along with something of a brain.
Spared a career in the syndicate, Ira goes into the service during World War II. Working as an Army stevedore offloading Lend-Lease equipment in Iran, he comes under the influence of a Marxist know-it-all and radical village explainer named Johnny O’Day. O’Day’s preachments strike a chord in the congenitally militant young soldier. “Ira’s Longy Zwillman,” Murray tells Zuckerman, “was Johnny O’Day.”
After the war, Ira, while working in a record factory, becomes involved in the politics of his left-wing union. Someone in the union, struck by Ira’s height and rough-hewn presence, gets the idea of having him perform as Lincoln for its political education programs, reading the Great Emancipator’s speeches in costume. It’s the great age of radio and Ira Ringold has a voice to match his appearance. Left-wing contacts in broadcasting get Ira an acting job. Before long, Ira Ringold is appearing weekly in one of those Popular Front-style, nationalist-populist-patriotic radio dramas that gave political coloration to the era of good feeling before the rise of Joe McCarthy and the fall of Earl Browder signaled the coming of the cold war.
Few things are harder to present than relatively recent history. One of the fascinations of I Married a Communist is its evocation of that lost interlude between the fall of Berlin and the Henry Wallace presidential campaign. For a time, the American left, at once naively Stalinist and vigorously All-American, still basked in the red, white, and blue afterglow of the New Deal. Adolescent Nathan Zuckerman, longing to be a radical writer himself, read the patriotic historical novels of the then still-Communist Howard Fast and rejoiced in Norman Corwin’s World War II victory pageant, the radio presentation On a Note of Triumph.
Quoted by Roth, the tone of Corwin’s drama is inimitable, time-bound in a mist of illusions that would one day sound nearly criminal, hopelessly dated, and strangely moving:
So they’ve given up.
They’re finally done in, and the rat is dead in an alley back of the
Wilhelmstrasse.Take a bow, G.I.,
Take a bow, little guy.
The superman of tomorrow lies at the feet of you common men of this
Young Nathan Zuckerman, with the lump in his throat, would grow up to a time when no one-no one-would ever again address the American public, the Princes and Princesses of Possibility, as “little guys” or “common men.” The contrast between those blinkered, noble-sounding pieties and the morbidly self-interested society coming into being is a tragic aspect of this unhappy story.
Ira Ringold, now a star of national proportions, marries Eve Frame, golden girl of stage, screen, and radio. It’s a marriage made in Technicolor Heaven—the cultured, gorgeously well-spoken, high-concept Hollywood aristocrat and the Third Ward railsplitter, Queen Christina meets the Jewish Abe Lincoln. Needless to say, things all go downward from there. And the theme, the one that haunted American Pastoral and seems to have become the obsessive center of Roth’s fiction in his current phase, is betrayal.
Eve Frame’s career, past its zenith when she married Ringold, is sliding into eclipse. She has a difficult relationship with her musically talented daughter, who in turn despises Ira and is adept at putting him down. The daughter is the offspring of Eve’s previous husband, a bisexual movieland prettyboy, whose veneer of glitz-ritz suited Eve’s confused ambitions earlier just as Ira Ringold’s rough-diamond “relevance” seemed appropriate after the war.
As things deteriorate, it becomes apparent that two desperate characters, sufferers in search of a torturer, expert tormentors in pursuit of a victim, have found each other out. Each is capable of anything. To save her failing career, Eve Frame-who seems never to have forgiven herself for originating as Chava Fromkin in Flatbush, or her father for being a kosher butcher-decides to ingratiate herself with the coterie of useless backbiters she thinks of as her classy friends. With the Red Scare rising inches daily around the feet of everyone in show business, she tearfully exposes Ira’s radical past to a despicable, anti-Semitic socialite columnist, whose support she imagines may prove useful. The columnist, a Rothian study in WASP degeneracy, encourages her to write a self-promoting book, revealing not only Ira’s leftist predilections but accusing him of outright espionage.
Meanwhile, readers become aware that Ira’s gauchiste engagement and concern for the “common man” are less the reflection of a sympathetic nature than the mindless, righteous compulsiveness of an overbearing bully whose chief attachment to the Revolution is the opportunities it gives him to push people around-particularly those endowed with physical dimensions less superbly Lincolnesque. At the University of Chicago young Nathan is astonished to have his Corwinesque, Ira Ringold-conditioned work of agitprop dismissed by an unkind but invaluable teacher. Suddenly we begin to understand that the match-up of the genteel Miss Frame and the sensitive Mr. Ringold just might amount to a freak instance of something like justice in a perversely ironic world. Each more or less deserving of what happens to them, the pair end by wreaking irreparable havoc on each other in an orgy of mutual violence and hatred that ruins them both.
I Married a Communist is not as original or powerful a work as American Pastoral, a visionary novel that, in its imaginative exposure of illusions, is perhaps Roth’s greatest accomplishment. His latest novel is a bitter, often funny, always engrossing story that wonderfully evokes a time and a place in our common past. Those who remember them will find the idealism and hypocrisies of the postwar period brilliantly resurrected; those for whom they are history will learn more than any number of variously self-serving memoirs convey.
What I Married a Communist tells us above all is that Philip Roth is very much with us as a writer, every bit as contemporary and vital as he was when he began. We can be reassured in not detecting the faintest signs of mellowing elder-statesmanhood. Readers in search of enlightened reconciliation to the world of the possible can look elsewhere. Philip Roth remains as edgy, as furious, as funny, and as dangerous as he was forty years ago.
November 5, 1998