A new Philip Roth: Gaze at the stars

September 20, 1998|By Alane Salierno Mason | Alane Salierno Mason,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"I Married a Communist," by Philip Roth. Houghton Mifflin. 336 pages. $26.

Philip Roth's stature in American letters is so great, and one is reminded of it so often (a new publication every 18 months, on average, for the last 30-something years, for a total of 23 books) and so insistently (two National Book Awards, two National Book Critics Circle Awards) that it begins to seem almost un-American not to read him.

Roth's primary narrator in "I Married a Communist" is again his alter-ego Nathan Zuckerman, in his 60s and living alone in a small house in the woods when he encounters his beloved and inspirational high school English teacher Murray Ringold, now 90 years old.

Murray unfolds (over six nights on the back porch of Zuckerman's cabin) the tale of his brother Ira, otherwise known as the radio star Iron Rinn and the idol of Zuckerman's transition from boyhood to manhood in the late '40s and early '50s. Zuckerman had gone off to the University of Chicago and quickly outgrown Ira's revolutionary polemics, but the figure of Ira - passionate defender of the downtrodden - still holds a larger-than-life fascination.

In Murray's retelling, Ira is all too human, in flight from his own violence, in love with the wrong woman, Eve Frame - an actress who, when her shaky marriage with Ira finally collapses, takes her revenge by allowing two ambitious right-wingers to ghost-write her memoir, "I Married a Communist."

Roth's historical portrait is so vivid that in contemporary context it seems both impossibly distant in particulars and utterly immediate in its concerns: about how the personal becomes political, about the mirage that is ideology and the lies that are public perception as opposed to the inner workings of messy lives.

It is a privilege to discover the utter control Roth has over his material, the confidence with which he unfolds complex, believable characters, tells their stories, and reflects on what it 00 all means - few contemporary fiction writers can wield this capacity for reflection so gracefully, can keep the reader interested while they think on the page without bringing a narrative screeching to a halt.

Has Roth always written this well, perfect sentence after perfect sentence, managing also to be funny (God saying, "Please, I am creating a universe, not a university. No literature") and up to the minute ("McCarthy understood the entertainment value of disgrace")? In monologue, he often writes better than anyone could possibly talk, a sin against verisimilitude but not, in this case, against art.

"I Married a Communist" ends with all the fist-waving of an earlier era having eroded into weary shrugs, with the sense that America has destroyed not only its inflammatory, unreliable Iras but also its solid, indispensable Murrays, who instilled in their students a passion for Shakespeare and "critical thinking."

Much is left unsaid about both Murray and the narrator, but is it necessary that both be in retreat? Why did Murray find his black students in Newark's ghettoes in the 1960s impossible to teach, and why does Zuckerman describe Murray's modest liberal hopes for "the improvement of life" as "now an illusion"?

The book offers no satisfying conclusion - such satisfactions being the temptation of ideologues? - but in an inverse of deus ex machina leaves Zuckerman gazing at the stars. It does invite one to go back and read it a second time, but I'll have to read some of Roth's other 22 novels first.

I'm sorry to be taking the party line, but it is un-American not to read Philip Roth.

Alane Salierno Mason is an editor at W.W. Norton & Co. During the year 1998-99, she will be a Visiting scholar at the University of North Carolina, developing a historical essay about Italian East Harlem, and at the American Academy of Arts and Letters in Rome, working on a translation of work by Elio Vittorini. Her mother is the same age as Philip Roth.

Pub Date: 9/20/98

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