I Married a Communist

By Philip Roth

Is Philp Roth America’s best living novelist? For the past 40 years there has been good reason to think so. And the miracle is, he seems to be getting better. His latest work continues what has, throughout the ’90s, been a remarkable streak.

The communist of the title is Ira Ringold, a poor Jewish boy from Newark who becomes a party member while serving overseas in World War Two. Back in America he goes from factory job to celebrity radio personality, adopting the name of “Iron Rinn”. Propelled into an alien social class, he marries – disastrously – a former movie star with an odious grown-up daughter. McCarthyism follows hard on the heels of domestic breakdown and he is, inevitably, destroyed.

If that sounds like the same kind of rise-and-fall story as last year’s American Pastoral, that’s because it is. The two books are really companion volumes. Both are narrated by Roth’s alter ego Nathan Zuckerman, and both describe the domestic tragedies of American dreamers “impaled on their moment” and caught “in the traps set for them by their era.” Just as Swede Levov is wrecked by the ’60s in American Pastoral, so Ira is ruined by the ’50s in this book.

That idea of being at odds with one’s time is typical of tragedy, and there is no question that Ira – the larger-than-life hero – is a conventionally tragic figure. But convention in this case is not something intellectual and dull. Roth adapts material from a variety of literary traditions into an American tragedy that is passionate, entertaining, and profound. Writing this smart shouldn’t be so much fun.

Most impressive of all is the presentation of what Nathan calls his “narrative engorgement” – the marathon conversation with Ira’s brother Murray that provides the novel with its frame. How easy it all seems! Roth is such an accomplished story-teller that many of the highly sophisticated games he plays – as when he teasingly circles around an important event in the plot to approach it from as many different angles as possible – seem to be second nature now, and almost pass without notice. Make no mistake: it takes a great deal of art to appear so artless.

The inflation of praise in literary circles these days makes it hard for writers to live up to their reputation. I Married a Communist does that and more. The word “perfect” rarely applies to any novel, but in this case I think we have the exception. I know I didn’t read a better novel all year.

There is no way of explaining how Roth continues to work at this level. We can only continue to enjoy it while it lasts.

Review first published December 19, 1998.

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