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Thursday, September 15, 2011

I Married a Communist


There is almost as much going on between the lines of Philip Roth’s I Married a Communist as there is in the story the novel tells.  Most obviously of course, the book is another chapter in the life of Roth’s alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman.  This chapter of Nathan’s story, concentrating on his teen-age years and his flirtation with Communism as it does, is a key portion of the Nathan Zuckerman saga.  And then there is Roth’s use of the book as payback to his ex-wife, Claire Bloom, for her overwhelmingly critical memoir (Leaving a Doll’s House, 1996), the book with which she did her best to destroy Roth’s reputation. 

The good news about all of this is that, although several of the 1998 book’s key characters are certainly based on Bloom, her daughter by a previous marriage, and some of her friends, I Married a Communist is more than just a means of retaliation on Roth’s part.  It is also a powerful indictment of the McCarthy-era witch-hunt that needlessly ruined so many lives in its determination to snuff out American Communism.

Key characters include: Nathan Zuckerman, a high school student being drawn toward Communism by his best friend and mentor; Murray Ringold, Nathan’s much admired English teacher; Ira Ringold, war veteran, radio actor, and active Communist to whom Nathan is particularly drawn; Eve Frame, silent movie star and radio actress who marries Ira; and, Sylphid, Eve Frame’s adult daughter. 

Philip Roth / Nathan Zuckerman
Ira’s story is recounted over several evenings of conversation between the now 90-year-old Murray Ringold and Nathan after a chance meeting between the two men provides them with the opportunity to do some long overdue catching up.  All of the key players in the story, other than Murray and Nathan, are long dead, and Murray holds nothing back as he shares his memories of his brother.  Murray is the last person alive who knows the whole story, and he believes that Nathan is the only one left who cares enough to listen to it.  As the two share memories of the past, Nathan reflects upon his own involvement in the events of those years and how his choices affected his relationship with his parents.

I Married a Communist is the second book in Roth’s “American Trilogy,” a series that also includes American Pastoral (an alternate history of America) and The Human Stain (about the goings on at a small New England college).  The trilogy is largely an indictment of the American Dream and a study of the social changes that shaped American thought during the second half of the twentieth century.  This second book, as are the other two in the series, is a reminder of just how easily those with the best of intentions can ruin innocent lives.

Rated at: 4.0
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