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Well Red

Philip Roth revisits the Red-scare fifties and finds the same old stories of passion and disillusionment -- but told in rhetoric that's a weird American poetry.

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I Married a Communist
BY PHILIP ROTH
Houghton Mifflin; 323 pages; $26

Philip Roth has hit some kind of home stretch in the past few years, tearing through prizes, citations, and distinctions as if they were so many finish-line paper ribbons. From 1993's Operation Shylock through to last year's American Pastoral, the jabbermouth introvert has grown reflective, unfurling himself into something larger than literature's most eloquent masturbator. He's done what many artists aspire to but never quite pull off: gazed through his navel and seen the other side. What's there is a roaring, muralistic street scene peopled by fathead dreamers, mournful patriarchs, and shrill ideologues -- the whole American carnival. Having twinned himself into Nathan Zuckerman, alter-ego narrator, Roth has gone on to triple and quadruple himself into a cacophonous one-man band. From myopic to epic, stethoscope to telescope. A self turned gloriously inside out.

I Married a Communist extends Roth's streak while narrowing its scope. The novel's less a chorus than a debate, a pageant of argument and dialectic. Murray and Ira Ringold are brothers from Newark, Roth's, and Zuckerman's, old stomping ground.

Murray, who tells the story over six nights at Zuckerman's rural New England hideaway, was the writer's high-school English teacher, his goad and guru. Murray is lusty, wise, and practical, a broad-shouldered role model of macho scholarship. He knows his Shakespeare but has street smarts, too. Ira, his younger brother, is more spectacular. Radicalized when he was a soldier in World War II, he's a raging, dogmatic socialist, a self-taught man of the people. He's also something of a fool. Ira's weakness for fine things and lofty people lands him in a disastrous marriage with actress Eva Frame, a self-suppressed Jew with an upper-crusty manner who's been swallowed whole by elocution lessons. Her Waspy polish may be only skin-deep, but whatever may once have been under it has vaporized.

Even snakier is Eva's daughter, Sylphid, a nightmare of superficial acculturation who ranks with Roth's most insidious fictional witches. Fathered by an aristocratic closeted gay actor, raised in Hollywood on bright lights and birthday cake, Sylphid is her mother's self-hatred incarnate, her psychological Siamese twin. Ira's mistake is to come between these women, with the result that he gets fatally squeezed. Estrogen is Kryptonite for Roth, and even the strongest men wither on exposure to it. Poor Ira, nicknamed Iron Rinn, is melted by a double dose.

The familiar frame for Ira's domestic tragedy isthat great postwar morality play: the Red Scare of the early fifties. Murray, a union organizer, lays out the orthodox version for his old pupil: numskull reactionaries versus fiery progressives, Ira being the fieriest of all. We get to know him through his secondhand rants: "You look with your big eyes into the capitalist shop window, you want and you want, you grab and you grab, you take and you take . . . and there is the end of your convictions and the beginning of your fear."

Energetic, these outbursts, but not so new. At times, they seem like an exercise in nostalgia. Instead of remembering neighborhood streets this time, Roth indulges a fondness for vintage rhetoric. He savors the speech, the diction of revolution.

What raises Roth's novel above mere rehash is its ear. American Marxism, in retrospect, turned out to be mostly talk. A verbal insurrection. And it's the linguistic turmoil, rather than the political, that Roth sets out to capture, and sometimes to satirize, as in this stiltedly breezy monologue from a radio play by the young and radical Zuckerman: "Take this town, take Anywhere, take what happened here last year when a Catholic family right around the corner from me found that zealous Protestantism can be just as cruel as Torquemada was. You remember Torquemada. The hatchet man for Ferdinand and Isabella."

The book is full of such period send-ups, the awkward poetry of the proletariat in all its hyperbolic earthiness. It's a style that spellbinds Zuckerman and whets his early literary appetite, and that, in the end, is what the book's about: a writer's struggle to find a personal voice during a time of supercharged public oratory. Roth lays out plenty of models to pick and choose from, re-creating pamphlets, plays, and dining-room diatribes from the socialist golden age. The impulse is archival, antiquarian -- equivalent to the passion of a musician digging for folk songs in the Library of Congress. Roth doesn't want those old tunes to be forgotten. He rewrites them to make the case for their deep influence.

In the meantime, Roth has his tale to tend to: the betrayal, demise, and destruction of Iron Rinn, and of American communism in general, that legendary cause without a rebel (or at least too few of them). He sticks with the basic fable and the stock cast. We know the ending, the moral, and the circumstances that lead up to them, and the most Roth can do is color in the subplots and tweak the turning points.

Not surprisingly, given his history, Roth highlights the erotic angle. What undermines the struggle of the working class is, in the end, the battle of the sexes. When Ira bites into Eve's high-society apple, it's good-bye, Lenin; hello, fine linens. The gates of utopia swing shut, and though he turns back and pounds his fists on them, the hinges don't budge. It's a spiritual lock-out.

I Married a Communist's best parts are its oratorical flights; its story hardly leaves the ground. In Johnny O'Day, a flinty steelworker and diehard pamphleteer, Roth gets the sound of self-educated outrage, of the brawler as social gadfly, exactly right. You hear the hammers swinging in O'Day's brain: "The rat press, the labor fakers, the phony city administrations of Gary and East Chicago regard me as dangerous? Good . . . I've got nobody dependent on me but me. And I don't depend on friends or women or jobs or any other conventional prop to existence."

Then there's Murray's take on Nixon's funeral, an improvisation from Zuckerman's old tutor that caps off his lesson in tough-guy social comment: "Nothing like the elevated remarks of Billy Graham, a flag-draped casket, and a team of interracial pallbearing servicemen . . . to induce catalepsy in the multitudes." Such punchiness is what Roth is commemorating -- the hardheaded chin music of the grand old comrades.


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