Only Philip Roth could
have written I Married a Communist; the man's
fingerprints are everywhere. You may think of
Roth as a novelist of great comic extravagance,
his satirical imagination controlled by a realist's
sense of detail. Or you may scramble for the exit
at the thought of one more book revisiting his
core obsessions, namely: 1) the libido and its
discontents; and 2) anti-Semitism, particularly its
most convoluted form, Jewish self-hatred. These
form two sides of a coin that has become a prop
for Roth's narrative tricks, in which mirrors have
become crucial to the magic act. Even Roth's
literary alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, writes
novels in which he creates alter egos. No
American writer has put himself in greater danger
of disappearing up his own keister.
With his most recent work, though, Roth has
been climbing back out. As in American
Pastoral (1997), Nathan Zuckerman's attention
returns to radical politics, and the new book takes
place between the fateful election season of 1948,
during the last gasp of Communist influence in
American political life, and the era of
McCarthyism. Chronicling that important
transition is part of Nathan's ongoing inventory of
his own psyche, but it also anchors the book in
As a teenager longing to write radio plays, Nathan
is thrilled to discover that his high school English
teacher's brother is Iron Rinn, star of a popular
serial about the struggles of the common folk. For
a time, Nathan and the actor (born Ira Ringold)
become close friends. The novel unfolds as Ira's
brother Murray fills in the gaps of Nathan's
recollection, decades later. Nathan found in Iron
Rinn a surrogate father: more serious and less
politically compromising than his biological
parent. Only with the passing of time can Nathan
grasp the complexities of his hero's marriage to
Eve Frame, a legendary silent-screen actress.
As intense as the anger that fuels his political
seriousness is Ira's conviction that, should push
come to shove, he could return to the masses.
Bourgeois life has not made him yield his ideals,
at least on anything important. And push does
come to shove. Not only is he blacklisted, but
when his marriage falls apart, Eve rushes into
print with the exposé that gives the novel its title.
This novel's intricate development makes it
considerably more engaging than a bald
plot-synopsis might suggest. With luck, a reader
might even forget that it is a reply to Roth's
ex-wife, actress Claire Bloom, whose tell-all
memoir might as well have been titled "I Married
a Clinically Depressed Narcissist." As Ira's
brother muses, "Nothing so big in people and
nothing so small, nothing so audaciously creative
in even the most ordinary as the working of
Beyond the glint of the knife in its passages of
psychological dissection, the novel does a fine job
conveying the feel of late 1940s-style American
communism, at least in its pop-culture
manifestations. The effort to infuse the language
of the common people with epic grandeur, the
populist sentimentality, the weird combination of
Norman Rockwell and Stalin's "Problems of
Leninism" -- the whole corny sensibility is
rendered here in both its most appealing and its
most self-deluded forms.
The picture of McCarthyism is less ambivalent.
"When before had betrayal ever been so
destigmatized and rewarded in this country?" asks
Murray. As Roth licks the wounds to his ego, the
novel invokes the birth of media as cultural
terrorism. It was an era in which the public
discovered "An interesting, manipulative,
underground type of pleasure in which there is
much that a human being finds appealing." If not
appealing, hard to avoid. Now more than ever. -- Salon
Arthur Schlesinger Jr.
I Married a Communist is a remarkable work remarkable in its stringent observation of American life, remarkable in its poignant sense of the contraditions and pathos of human existence, remarkable in its style and its wisdom.
New York Observer
Roth remains a masterful storyteller, and so this latest novel is both engaging and instructive as it recounts the spirit of emerging McCathyism of the late 1940s and early 1950s.
The story. . .has no center, because Ira, who is supposed to be its center, barely exists. . . .Roth . . .has become, in recent books, a very essayistic writer, no longer showing but loudly telling. . . .I Married a Communist is only an essay about politics, and a rather conventional one. The New Republic
. . .[A] wildly uneven novel that feels both unfinished and overstuffed. . .veers unsteadily between sincerity and slapstickheartfelt melancholy and cavalier manipulation. . . .[the book] may masquerade as a parable about. . .the wages of McCarthyismbut it's actually a smallerless ambitious work. . . The New York Times
[The novel] telescopes the 1950s culture of hysterical anticommunism with our. . .frantic scandal consumerism.
Constantly mesmerizing. Library shelves groan under the weight of books published about the witch hunts and blacklistings. . .but it would be hard to find one among them that presents as nuanced, as humanely complex an account of those years as I Married a Communist. Time Magazine
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Disconcerting echoes of Roth's relationship with Claire Bloom, as revealed in her memoir, Leaving the Doll's House, haunt Roth's angry but oddly inert 23rd novel. As in American Pastoral, Roth again deals with the Newark of his youth, and with the sons of Jewish immigrants to whom America has given opportunity and even riches -- and how they are swept off course by the forces of history. Roth's alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, narrates the story of Ira Ringold, aka Iron Rinn, a supremely idealistic political radical and celebrated radio star of the '50s who is blacklisted and brought to ruin when his wife, Eva Frame (a self-hating Jewish actress born Chava Fromkin), writes an expose called I Married A Communist. The impetus for Eva's treacherous act is Ira's insistence that she evict her 24-year-old daughter from their house; the resemblance to Bloom's revelations of Roth's similar demand is too close to miss, and Roth's shrill belaboring of the issue seems a thinly disguised vendetta. Even high-pitched scenes of family conflict don't bring the novel to life. One problem is that the flat flashback narration shared between the 64-year-old Nathan and Ira's 90-year-old brother, Murray, is stultifyingly dull. Some fine Roth touches do appear: his evocation of the Depression years through the McCarthy era has clarity and vigor. But Ira's aggressively boorish behavior as he struggles with his conscience over having abandoned his Marxist ideals to assume a bourgeois lifestyle is never credible, and his turgid ideological rants against the American government are jackhammers of repetitious invective. In addition, the depiction of an adolescent Nathan as a precocious writer and social philosopher and the saintly Murray's infallible memory of long conversations with Ira -- even between Ira and Eva in bed -- challenge the reader's credulity. For those who lived through the years Roth evokes, this novel will have some resonance. For others, its belligerent tone and lack of dramatic urgency will be a turnoff.
Roth turns from chaotic '60s (in American Pastoral) to the betrayals of the McCarthy era one decade earlier. When silent-film star Eve Frame (born Chava Fromkin) tells the world that her husband, famed radio actor Iron Rinn (born Ira Ringold), spied for the Commies, all hell breaks loose.
. . .[D]arkly brilliant. . .a cross between insightful political fiction and a Greek tragedy. . . -- People
[The novel] telescopes the 1950s culture of hysterical anticommunism with our. . .frantic scandal consumerism. -- Entertainment Weekly
...[E]xtends Roth's streak while narrowing its scope....less a chorus than a debate, a pageant of argument and dialectic....linguistic turmoil, rather than the political, that Roth sets out to caputure....The impulse is archival, antiquarian....highlights the erotic angle....best parts are its oratorical flights; its story hardly leaves the ground. -- New York Magazine
. . .[A] wildly uneven novel that feels both unfinished and overstuffed. . .veers unsteadily between sincerity and slapstick, heartfelt melancholy and cavalier manipulation. . . .[the book] may masquerade as a parable about. . .the wages of McCarthyism, but it's actually a smaller, less ambitious work. . . -- The New York Times
His latest novel is a bitter, often funny, always engrossing story that wonderfully evokes a time and place in our common past. . .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. . . Philip Roth remains as edgy, as furious, as funny, and as dangerous as he was 40 yeares ago. -- New York Review of Books
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.
I Married a Communist is a remarkable work -- remarkable in its stringent observation of American life, remarkable in its poignant sense of the contraditions and pathos of human existence, remarkable in its style and its wisdom. -- New York Observer
Roth explores our expedients and tragedies with a masterly, often unnerving, blend of tenderness, harshness, insight and wit. . . .a gripping novel, memorable, its characters hateful and adorable by turns. -- New York Times Book Review
. . .[A] rant. . . .What's worse, we are bullied. . . .But you know how it is. When someone tells the whole world that you had to be hospitalized for depression because John Updike didn't like Operation Shylock, you tend to hold the kind of grudge that, if indulged, distorts a novel and trivializes an era. -- The Nation
Following the spectacular success of its immediate predecessor,American Pastoral, Roth's ambitious new novel is another chronicle of innocence and idealism traducedthe demolition of what one of its characters calls 'the myth of your own goodness.'
That character is Murray Ringold, a nonagenarian former schoolteacher whose meeting with his onetime student (and recurring Roth character), novelist Nathan Zuckerman, triggers a complex reconstruction of the infamous life of Murray's younger brother Ira. As 'Iron Rinn,' a radio star. married to one of the country's most revered radio actresses, Ira had become a beloved public figure renowned for his impersonations of Abraham Lincoln (whom he physically resembled) and for patriotic broadcasts celebrating America's working poor. Nathan, who grew up in the '40s as a fledgling liberal intellectual whose heroes were radio playwright Norman Corwin and left-wing novelist Howard Fast, adored the charismatic Ira, even after the latter's wife denounced him as a duplicitous 'zealot' in her explosive memoir,I Married a Communist. The story of Ira's violent youth, spectacular career, and eventual disgrace is rather ham-fistedly assembled from Nathan's own memories (as Iron Rinn's devoted acolyte), the stories Ira told him, andmost movinglythe immensely detailed recollections poured forth by the ever-garrulous Murray Ringold (brilliantly portrayed as a bundle of fiery intellectual and moral energies undimmed by old age; a sturdy exemplar of 'the disciplined sadness of stoicism').
The character of Murray is the triumph of this often inventive but gratingly discursive novel, whose dramatic content is frequently upstaged by such indulgences as Ira's lengthy political diatribes, Nathan's summaries of favorite literary works (such as Arthur Miller's Focus), and Murray's exhausting (if agreeably savage) remembrance of Richard Nixon's state funeral. Despite its superb re-creation of the conflicted 1940s and the ordeal of the American Left, along with a plethora of sharply realized ideologues at verbal war, this very talky book is an example of Roth at his most forceful and eloquent, though perhaps rather less than his best.
From the Publisher
"Roth has done something more wicked than ever before: he has dared to write a wrenching, compaionate, intelligent novel about the life of a good man." Boston Globe
"One of Mr. Roth's most powerful novels ever, a big, rough-hewn work built on a grand design . . . A fiercely affecting work of art." The New York Times
"American Pastoral deconstructed the radical hysteria of the late 1960s . . . [I Married a Communist] deconstructs the reactionary hysteria of the early 1950s . . . Mr. Roth has the frantic politics of this frantic time in exact pitch . . . I Married a Communist is a remarkable workremarkable in its stringent observation of American life, remarkable in its poignant sense of the contradictions and pathos of human existence, remarkable in its style and in its wisdom."Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., New York Observer
"Never before has Roh written fiction with such clear conviction." Time Magazine
"Roth is still at the top of his game . . . one heavy hitter who's playing for keeps." Newsweek
Read an Excerpt
Ira Ringold's older brother, Murray, was my first high school English teacher, and it was through him that I hooked up with Ira. In 1946 Murray was just back from the army, where he'd served with the 17th Airborne Division at the Battle of the Bulge; in March 1945, he'd made the famous jump across the Rhine that signaled the beginning of the end of the European war. He was, in those days, a crusty, brash, baldheaded guy, not as tall as Ira but rangy and athletic, who hovered over our heads in a perpetual state of awareness. He was altogether natural in his manner and posture while in his speech verbally copious and intellectually almost menacing. His passion was to explain, to clarify, to make us understand, with the result that every last subject we talked about he broke down into its principal elements no less meticulously than he diagrammed sentences on the blackboard. His special talent was for dramatizing inquiry, for casting a strong narrative spell even when he was being strictly analytic and scrutinizing aloud, in his clearcut way, what we read and wrote.
Along with the brawn and the conspicuous braininess, Mr. Ringold brought with him into the classroom a charge of visceral spontaneity that was a revelation to tamed, respectablized kids who were yet to comprehend that obeying a teacher's rules of decorum had nothing to do with mental development. There was more importance than perhaps even he imagined in his winning predilection for heaving a blackboard eraser in your direction when the answer you gave didn't hit the mark. Or maybe there wasn't. Maybe Mr. Ringold knew very well that what boys like me needed to learn was not only how to express themselves withprecision and acquire a more discerning response to words, but how to be rambunctious without being stupid, how not to be too well concealed or too well behaved, how to begin to release the masculine intensities from the institutional rectitude that intimidated the bright kids the most.
You felt, in the sexual sense, the power of a male high school teacher like Murray Ringold-masculine authority uncorrected by piety-and you felt, in the priestly sense, the vocation of a male high school teacher like Murray Ringold, who wasn't lost in the amorphous American aspiration to make it big, who-unlike the school's women teachers-could have chosen to be almost anything else and chose instead, for his life's work, to be ours. All he wanted all day long was to deal with young people he could influence, and his biggest kick in life he got from their response.
Not that the impression his bold classroom style left on my sense of freedom was apparent at the time; no kid thought that way about school or teachers or himself. An incipient craving for social independence, however, had to have been nourished somewhat by Murray's example, and I told him this when, in July 1997, for the first time since I graduated from high school in 1950, I ran into Murray, now ninety years old but in every discernible way still the teacher whose task is realistically, without self-parody or inflating dramatics, to personify for his students the maverick dictum "I don't give a good goddamn," to teach them that you don't have to be Al Capone to transgress-you just have to think. "In human society," Mr. Ringold taught us, "thinking's the greatest transgression of all." "Cri-ti-cal think-ing," Mr. Ringold said, using his knuckles to rap out each of the syllables on his desktop, "-there is the ultimate subversion." I told Murray that hearing this early on from a manly guy like him-seeing it demonstrated by him-provided the most valuable clue to growing up that I had clutched at, albeit half comprehendingly, as a provincial, protected, high-minded high school kid yearning to be rational and of consequence and free.
Murray, in turn, told me everything that, as a youngster, I didn't know and couldn't have known about his brother's private life, a grave misfortune replete with farce over which Murray would sometimes find himself brooding even though Ira was dead now more than thirty years. "Thousands and thousands of Americans destroyed in those years, political casualties, historical casualties, because of their beliefs," Murray said. "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."
Murray also told me, when I asked, how he had been stripped of his significance. I knew the general story but little of the details because I began my own army stint-and wasn't around Newark again for years-after I graduated college in 1954, and Murray's political ordeal didn't get under way until May 1955. We started with Murray's story, and it was only at the end of the afternoon, when I asked if he'd like to stay for dinner, that he seemed to feel, in unison with me, that our relations had shifted to a more intimate plane and that it wouldn't be incorrect if he went on to speak openly about his brother's.
Out near where I live in western New England, a small college called Athena runs a series of weeklong summer programs for elderly people, and Murray was enrolled as a student, at ninety, for the course grandly entitled "Shakespeare at the Millennium." That's how I'd run into him in town on the Sunday he arrived-having failed to recognize him, I was fortunate that he recognized me-and how we came to spend our six evenings together. That's how the past turned up this time, in the shape of a very old man whose talent was to give his troubles not one second more thought than they warranted and who still couldn't waste his time talking other than to a serious point. A palpable obstinacy lent his personality its flinty fullness, and this despite time's radical pruning of his old athletic physique. Looking at Murray while he spoke in that familiarly unhidden, scrupulous way of his, I thought, There it is-human life. There is endurance.
In '55, almost four years after Ira was blacklisted from radio for being a Communist, Murray had been dismissed from his teaching job by the Board of Education for refusing to I cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee when it had come through Newark for four days of hearings. He was reinstated, but only after a six-year legal struggle that ended in a 5-4 decision by the state supreme court, reinstated with back pay, minus the amount of money he had earned supporting his family those six years as a vacuum salesman.
"When you don't know what else to do," Murray said with a smile, "you sell vacuum cleaners. Door to door. Kirby vacuum cleaners. You spill a full ashtray onto the carpet and then you vacuum it up for them. You vacuum the house for them. That's how you sell the thing. Vacuumed half the houses in New Jersey in my day. Look, I had a lot of well-wishers, Nathan. I had a wife whose medical expenses were constant, and we had a child, but I was getting a pretty good amount of business and I sold a lot of people vacuum cleaners. And despite her scoliosis problems, Doris went back to work. She went back to the lab at the hospital. Did the blood work. Eventually ran the lab. In those days there was no separation between the technical stuff and the medical arts, and Doris did it all: drew the blood, stained the slides. Very patient, very thorough with a microscope. Well trained. Observant. Accurate. Knowledgeable. She used to come home from the Beth Israel, just across the street from us, and cook dinner in her lab coat. Ours was the only family I ever knew of whose salad dressing was served in laboratory flasks. The Erlenmeyer flask. We stirred our coffee with pipettes. All our glassware was from the lab. When we were on our uppers, Doris made ends meet. Together we were able to tackle it."
"And they came after you because you were Ira's brother?" I asked. "That's what I always assumed."
"I can't say for sure. Ira thought so. Maybe they came after me because I never behaved the way a teacher was supposed to behave. Maybe they would have come after me even without Ira. I started out as a firebrand, Nathan. I burned with zeal to establish the dignity of my profession. That may be what rankled them more than anything else. The personal indignity that you had to undergo as a teacher when I first started teaching-you wouldn't believe it. Being treated like children. Whatever the superiors told you, that was law. Unquestioned. You will get here at this time, you will sign the time book on time. You will spend so many hours in school. And you will be called on for afternoon and evening assignments, even though that wasn't part of your contract. All kinds of chicken-shit stuff. You felt denigrated.
"I threw myself into organizing our union. I moved quickly into committee leadership, executive board positions. I was outspoken-at times, I admit, pretty glib. I thought I knew all the answers. But I was interested in teachers' getting respect-respect, and proper emoluments for their labors, and so forth. Teachers had problems with pay, working conditions, benefits . . .
"The superintendent of schools was no friend of mine. I had been prominent in the move to deny him promotion to the superintendency. I supported another man, and he lost. So because I made no bones about my opposition to this son of a bitch, he hated my guts, and in '55 the ax fell and I was called downtown to the Federal Building, to a meeting of the House Un-American Activities Committee. To testify. Chairman was a Representative Walter. Two more members of the committee came with him. Three of them up from Washington, with their lawyer. They were investigating Communist influence in everything in the city of Newark but primarily investigating what they called 'the infiltration of the party' into labor and education. There had been a sweep of these hearings throughout the country-Detroit, Chicago. We knew it was coming. It was inevitable. They knocked us teachers off in one day, the last day, a Thursday in May.
"I testified for five minutes. 'Have you now or have you ever been . . . ? 'I refused to answer. Well, why won't you? they said. You got nothing to hide. Why don't you come clean? We just want information. That's all we're here for. We write legislation. We're not a punitive body. And so forth. But as I understood the Bill of Rights, my political beliefs were none of their business, and that's what I told them-'It's none of your business.'
"Earlier in the week they'd gone after the United Electrical Workers, Ira's old union back in Chicago. On Monday evening, a thousand UE members came over on chartered buses from New York to picket the Robert Treat Hotel, where the committee staff members were staying. The Star-Ledger described the picketers' appearance as 'an invasion of forces hostile to the congressional inquiry.' Not a legal demonstration as guaranteed by rights laid down in the Constitution but an invasion, like Hitler's of Poland and Czechoslovakia. One of the committee congressmen pointed out to the press-and without a trace of embarrassment at the un-Americanness lurking in his observation-that a lot of the demonstrators were chanting in Spanish, evidence to him that they didn't know the meaning of the signs they were carrying, that they were ignorant 'dupes' of the Communist Party. He took heart from the fact that they had been kept under surveillance by the 'subversives squad' of the Newark police. After the bus caravan passed through Hudson County on the way back to New York, some big cop there was quoted as saying, 'If I knew they were Reds, I'd of locked all thousand of them up.' That was the local atmosphere, and that was what had been appearing in the press, by the time I got to be questioned, the first to be called up on Thursday.
"Near the end of my five minutes, in the face of my refusal to cooperate, the chairman said that he was disappointed that a man of my education and understanding should be unwilling to help the security of this country by telling the committee what it wanted to know. I took that silently. The only hostile remark I made was when one of those bastards closed off by telling me, 'Sir, I question your loyalty.' I told him, 'And I question yours.' And the chairman told me that if I continued to 'slur' any member of the committee, he would have me ejected. 'We don't have to sit here,' he told me, I and take your bunk and listen to your slurs.' 'Neither do I,' I said, 'have to sit here and listen to your slurs, Mr. Chairman.' That was as bad as it got. My lawyer whispered to me to cut it out, and that was the end of my appearance. I was excused.
"But as I got up to leave my chair, one of the congressmen called after me, I suppose to provoke me into contempt-'How can you be paid by the taxpayers' money when you are obligated by your damnable Communist oath to teach the Soviet line? How in God's name can you be a free agent and teach what the Communists dictate? Why don't you get out of the party and reverse your tracks? I plead with you-return to the American way of life!'
"But I didn't take the bait, didn't tell him that what I taught had nothing to do with the dictates of anything other than composition and literature, though, in the end, it didn't seem to matter what I said or didn't say: that evening, in the Sports Final edition, there was my kisser on the front page of the Newark News, over the caption 'Red Probe Witness Balky' and the line "'Won't take your bunk," HUAC tells Newark teacher.'
"Now, one of the committee members was a congressman from New York State, Bryden Grant. You remember the Grants, Bryden and Katrina. Americans everywhere remember the Grants. Well, the Ringolds were the Rosenbergs to the Grants. This society pretty boy, this vicious nothing, all but destroyed our family. And did you ever know why? Because one night Grant and his wife were at a party that Ira and Eve were giving on West Eleventh Street and Ira went after Grant the way only Ira could go after somebody. Grant was a pal of Wernher von Braun's, or Ira thought so, and Ira laid into him but good. Grant was-to the naked eye, that is-an effete upper-class guy of the sort who set Ira's teeth on edge. The wife wrote those popular romances that the ladies devoured and Grant was then still a columnist for the Journal-American. To Ira, Grant was the incarnation of pampered privilege. He couldn't stand him. Grant's every gesture made him sick and his politics he abhorred.
What People are saying about this
From the Publisher
"A bitter, often funny, always engrossing story that wonderfully evokes a time and place in our common past.... The idealisms and hypocrisies of the postwar period [are] brilliantly resurrected." —Robert Stone, The New York Review of Books
"A remarkable work—remarkable in its stringent observation of American life...remarkable in its wisdom. Mr. Roth has the frantic politics of this frantic time—the McCarthy era—in exact pitch." —Arthur Schlesinger, The New York Observer
"As social history it bbreathes life. In Ira Ringold, Roth has created one of his singularly ripe, vigorous characters. Ira's dizzying rise and fall out of and back into the working class trace the trajectory of twenty years of American history." —Todd Gitlin, Chicago Tribune
"Philip Roth is an amazing writer.... I Married a Communist may very well become his classic work; perhaps a classic for all time."The Plain Dealer
"Gripping.... A masterly, often unnerving, blend of tenderness, harshness, insight and wit."The New York Times Book Review
"I Married a Communist is filled with passages as fine and sharp as anything Roth has ever written (which is to say, as fine and sharp as anything in contemporary American literature)."The Village Voice Literary Supplement
"I Married a Communist leaves youboth dumbfounded and in awe."Chicago Sun-Times
"[S]eals [Roth's] reputation as a writer at the very top of his game."The Philadelphia Inquirer