Books: Hammers and pickles

Laurie Taylor finds the roots of media politics in the red scares of the Fifties; I Married a Communist by Philip Roth Jonathan Cape, pounds 16.99, 323pp
COMMENTATORS WHO have insisted on reading the Starr Report as a significant indictment of American political morality should be the first to have their noses rubbed in Philip Roth's powerful new novel: a thoroughly necessary reminder of the time when Presidential licence ran not to a bit of rumpty-tumpty in the White House, but the wholesale destruction of thousands of ordinary citizens' lives in the relentless search for communists and communist sympathisers.

But although Roth exposes the absurdities of postwar McCarthyism and the appalling effect it had on those who were named as traitors, his primary concern, as in his previous novel American Pastoral, is with the way in which public events impinge upon private lives.

"Maybe, despite ideology, politics, and history, a genuine catastrophe is always personal bathos at the core," he writes. "You have to take your hat off to life for the techniques at its disposal to strip a man of his significance and empty him totally of his pride."

The genuine catastrophe on this occasion befalls Ira Ringold, a self- educated former ditch-digger with a full set of orthodox communist beliefs. His public impersonations of Abraham Lincoln land him a highly successful acting job on the radio, a new stage name, Iron Rinn, and the hand in marriage of the nation's favourite radio actress, Eve Frame.

Among Ira's first fans was our old friend Nathan Zuckerman (Roth's familiar alter ego) who was still at school studying literature under Ira's brother Murray when he first encountered this great, reckless, opinionated giant of a man. Ira was quite something. He talked to Nathan about Tom Paine and Howard Fast, talked about books "as though something were at stake in a book", took him along to a rally in downtown Newark for Henry Wallace, the presidential candidate for the Progressive Party, and even introduced him to Paul Robeson, who shook his hand and said "Don't lose your courage, young man!"

Nathan slowly loses touch with his hero, and only learns of the succession of events which subsequently laid him low, when, at 64, he meets up again with Ira's brother, Murray, now a splendidly articulate 90-year-old.

Over the course of several days, Murray tells Nathan the long story of Ira's increasingly wild polemicising, his violent rows with his wife Eve, and the circumstances which finally led her to betray him to gossip columnist Bryden Grant.

Only a gossip columnist, Murray explains, would have been appropriate : "I think of the McCarthy ere as inaugurating the postwar triumph of gossip as the unifying credo of the world's oldest democratic republic. In Gossip We Trust. Gossip as gospel, the national faith. McCarthyism as the beginning not just of serious politics but of serious everything as entertainment to amuse the mass audience. McCarthyism as the first postwar flowering of the American unthinking that is now everywhere!"

Of course, with Roth in the driving seat, this is never going to be a conventional moral story of how a good man was laid low by an evil system. Even as Ira is being absurdly transformed into a Soviet spy by his wife's hysterical confessions, we learn of his violent and murderous past, and sit through some of his wilder rantings about the wonders of life in the Soviet Union.

McCarthyism may have ruined him, but the job could have been done just as well by any of life's other techniques for stripping a man of his significance.

I Married a Communist lacks some of the energy and narrative exuberance of Sabbath's Theater and American Pastoral. The manner in which the historical narrative alternates between Nathan and Murray is occasionally confusing, and there is a long sub-plot about the deeply disturbed relationship between Eve and her daughter by an earlier marriage. This seems to owe less to dramatic necessity than to Roth's desire to make a point about his own relationship with his former wife, the actress, Claire Bloom.

Might these minor deficiencies be a sign that the author's persistent engagement with the flawed heroes of his own childhood is now becoming a shade less passionate? In one beautiful passage, he seeks to justify Ira's decision to retreat to a shack, to the "palliative of the primitive hut... Think of those Chinese paintings of the old man under the mountain, the old Chinese man all alone under the mountain, receding from the agitation of the autobiographical".

But, luckily for Roth fans, this is not a recipe for quiescence. There is a new enemy in sight: "Now, becalmed, he enters into completion with death, drawn down into austerity, the final business".