I Married a Communist
by Philip Roth
The first thing anyone will want to know about Philip Roth's eighteenth novel is whether it is as superbly good as his seventeenth, American Pastoral. The answer is: no, nowhere near. Is it any good at all? Sure: taken simply as a novel, I Married a Communist is better than most of those that cross a reviewer's desk. Roth's a pro, for Heaven's sake; he knows how to do the business. There is, however, an attitude, an odor to IMAC, that I think will make this particular book unpalatable to readers of this particular magazine, as it was to me.
The story is narrated by Nathan Zuckerman, Roth's favorite self-impersonation, now in his sixties. Nathan encounters his high-school English teacher, Murray Ringold, ninety years old. What follows is a mix of reminiscences by Nathan and Murray, all centered on the tale of Murray's brother Ira, the communist of the title. Nathan himself knew Ira briefly, and idolized him for a year or two before leaving home to attend college. Ira was a radio personality until being blacklisted in 1951.
So here we are among the familiar stage scenery of the McCarthy period: those betrayals, those namings of names, those lists. This, I admit, predisposes me against the book. I don't doubt that Tailgunner Joe was a malicious clown, who generated much petty injustice; but in the rhetoric of the Left, it is all so overblown. They are forever telling us, as Murray does in IMAC, that there were "Thousands and thousands of Americans destroyed in those years …" On further exposition, "destroyed" turns out to mean that the victim lost a glamorous job like Ira's, or a rewarding one like Murray's, and had to take up the kind of dull, badly-paid work most people do all their lives. Meanwhile, in those nations that fell to communism, "destroyed" had a more straightforward meaning — and not for mere thousands, but for tens of millions.
Then there is that odor — not of sanctity, but of sanctimony. Everywhere in this book — in the mouths of Murray, Ira and Nathan himself — is the insufferable self-righteousness of the Left, served up neat, without any irony I could detect. In one of the least convincing passages, Ira chokes up — literally — at the recollection of seeing Iranian children living on a garbage dump. What sensitivity! Sure (Roth is telling us) these commies may have been wrong-headed — but what idealists they were! So they were; so were hundreds of thousands of the Germans who died for Hitler. People will act with great nobility in a foul cause. Does Mr Roth have any plans for a book called I Married a Nazi?
Contrariwise with the villains of the novel, Bryden Grant and his wife Katrina. It is Katrina who ghosts the book I Married a Communist, in which Ira's wife exposes him. (A title within a title, see? Roth can never altogether resist scratching that self-referential itch. One of his previous novels contained a character called Philip Roth.) Bryden, a former gossip columnist, gets elected Congressman and appointed to the House Un-American Activities Committee. As a member of that committee, he causes Murray to lose his job. Being Republicans and anti-communists, the Grants must, of course, be portrayed as moral nullities. No choking up over third-world kiddies for them! From the viewpoint of this novel, no anti-communist — nobody to the right of Adlai Stevenson, in fact — could possibly be motivated by anything but vanity and greed. Says Murray:
All that mattered to the Grants was how to make Ira serve their cause. And what was their cause? America? Democracy? If ever patriotism was a pretext for self-seeking, for self-devotion, for self-adoration …
Murray then commences a long tirade about seeing Richard Nixon's funeral on TV. I don't think you would need to be a fan of the thirty-seventh president to find this passage loathsome. Kicking a man when he's down is bad enough; but when he's dead? Not that the living are spared in this unseemly rant.
[Senator Bob] Dole and his flood of lachrymose clichés. "Doctor" Kissinger … with all the cold authority of that voice dipped in sludge … Ronald Reagan snapping the honor guard … that salute of his that was always half meshugeh … [Roth's italics.]
What are those quotes doing around Kissinger's title? (Later in the passage, after some sneering at his figure, Kissinger is referred to as "the court Jew.") What does Roth want us to think about a man who could make that despicable allusion to Ronald Reagan's present infirmity? So far as I could tell, he wants us to admire him. A fiction writer is entitled to presumption of innocence in respect of his characters' opinions, but in the absence of irony or rebuttal the horrid thought keeps surfacing: Perhaps Roth himself feels this way! Perhaps it's Roth's voice we're hearing!
As I said, it's not a bad novel, as novels go nowadays. There is a discernible story and some excellent secondary characters (always a strong point of Roth's); though I think Ira himself is a failure, with no more blood in him than one of those thirty-foot statues of the heroic worker, hammer brandished aloft, that used to blight the public squares in Tirana and Blagovashchensk. The book's problem is one of attitude: the assumption that we all share the sentiments of the old Left. Not a fondness for communism — even the American Left has given up on that — but a gnawing, unsleeping, undiminishing, everlasting hatred of anti-communism. There is carelessness in the writing, too: Switzerland's currency is the Franc, not the Mark, and I do not believe the word "racism" was current in the 1940s. Whatever happened to editing?