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I MARRIED A COMMUNIST.\o7 By Philip Roth (Houghton Mifflin: 326 pp., $26)\f7

October 11, 1998|RICHARD EDER | Richard Eder is The Times' book critic

Philip Roth sets his new novel in the political riptides of the early 1950s. Its protagonist is a Communist radio star denounced and dismissed amid the charges and investigations that seethed around Joseph McCarthy, the House Un-American Activities Committee and the entertainment world's blacklists.

In one sense, "I Married a Communist" continues an exploration begun by Roth in his previous novel, "American Pastoral." Set largely in Newark, N.J., at a time when it was a flourishing working-class city, both books function in part as social history. Against that history they recount the devastation of private lives by America's political polarizations.

"Pastoral" told of a prosperous middle-class family shattered by the terrorist activities of a daughter belonging to a splinter group reminiscent of the Weather Underground. The new novel moves back 20 years from the New Left days to portray the Old Left's splits and betrayals and the persecutory warfare waged by the Right.

It is a theme of potential promise. Roth, whose "Pastoral" was a chilling excoriation of the generational self-indulgence of 1970s radicals, is more ambivalent about their predecessors. He summons up, for a while, their energy and idealism, and in today's climate of ideological catatonia, the simplistic hopes, slogans and songs of those years have a refreshment to them. Simplistic leftism had a short shelf life, though, and was subject to Stalinist rot. "Communist" portrays its atrophy into sectarian rigidity and banal sentiment.

It is a wan shadow, though, of the nonstop energy and coruscating inventiveness that have marked Roth's work over the past couple of decades. There are "The Ghost Writer," "Zuckerman Unbound," "The Anatomy Lesson," "The Counterlife" and "Operation Shylock" as (in my view) major successes. There are "Sabbath's Theater," which, if Roth falls into his abyss instead of skirting it, makes a gaudy plunge nevertheless, and "Pastoral," which I admire, though with some reservations.

Roth's new, much weaker novel recounts the rise and fall of Ira Ringold, a brawny, passionate man who worked in brutal laboring jobs in the '30s, joined the Army in World War II and was brought into the party by a fellow soldier and Communist activist. After the war, organizers took advantage of his size, craggy features and resonant voice to tour him to union pep rallies. There, dressed as Abraham Lincoln, he would intone the Gettysburg Address.

These were remnants of the Popular Front times, when the party espoused a broad alignment with American protest groups and traditions. A leftist radio producer hires Ira; before long, he is the presenter of a successful radio program devoted to the kind of populist, working-class themes that commanded a considerable audience before and just after the war.

Ira marries Eve, a once-celebrated film star whose career revived when she became the country's leading radio actress. The marriage turns stormy and breaks up, owing in part to the malevolence of Eve's neurotically jealous daughter. Taunted by one of Ira's lovers, Eve steals papers showing his concealed work for the party. She gives them to a right-wing columnist who helps her write an expose--"I Married a Communist"--that gets Ira fired and ruins him.

So much for a plot outline. A Roth plot can be fiendishly clever--here it alternately limps and thrashes--but what chiefly mark him and his characters are the rants. "Identifying tirades," Elizabeth Hardwick calls them, "tirades of perfervid brilliance, and this is what he can do standing on his head or hanging out the window if need be." In "Communist" the rants are mostly muted. Roth does them reclining or half-glimpsed behind a closed window.

Nathan Zuckerman is back but much dwindled. He is more narrator than character, but when Roth is going full force, his Zuckerman, even as narrator, is a subverting explosion. In "Communist" he simply tells Ira's story. It is using a blood stallion to pull a milk wagon.

For much of the book, Zuckerman's narration is further diluted by the fact that it is third-hand, retelling what a brother of Ira's tells him. There are long, wordy passages (for a master of words), tediously detailed (for a master of fiery detail), that bring the book's erratic momentum to a halt.

Things are livelier, despite an un-usefully scrambled chronology, which Zuckerman recounts directly. Meeting Ira as an adolescent, he becomes his fiery adept, thrilled by his war against American society and romance with the working class. A year later the glamour has faded. Ira's speeches become tired rhetoric to a boy who is about to go off to college and replace the intoxication of social preaching with that of literary aesthetics.

It is, perhaps, Roth's own valedictory to a romantic illusion. Before the book ends, Ira will have been revealed not only as a self-indulgent, womanizing bore but as something more sinister.

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