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".

Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
'Eminem's recovery from substance abuse has made him a more potent performer, with physical charisma and energy he never had before'
musicReview: Wembley Stadium ***
Arts and Entertainment
‘Dawn of Planet of the Apes’ also looks set for success in the Chinese market

film
News
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight

tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Super Mario crushes the Messi dream as Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil

    Super Mario crushes the Messi dream

    Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil
    Saharan remains may be evidence of the first race war, 13,000 years ago

    The first race war, 13,000 years ago?

    Saharan remains may be evidence of oldest large-scale armed conflict
    Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

    Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

    Researchers hope eye tests can spot ‘biomarkers’ of the disease
    Sex, controversy and schoolgirl schtick

    Meet Japan's AKB48

    Pop, sex and schoolgirl schtick make for controversial success
    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor