Radio actor Iron Rinn (born Ira Ringold) is a big Newark roughneck blighted by a brutal personal secret from which he is perpetually in flight. An idealistic Communist, a self-educated ditchdigger turned popular performer, a six-foot six-inch Abe Lincoln look-alike, he marries the nation's reigning radio actress and beloved silent-film star, the exquisite Eve Frame (born Chava Fromkin). Their marriage evolves from a glamorous, romantic idyll into a dispiriting soap opera of tears and treachery. And with Eve's dramatic revelation to the gossip columnist Bryden Grant of her husband's life of "espionage" for the Soviet Union, the relationship enlarges from private drama into national scandal. Set in the heart of the McCarthy era, the story of Iron Rinn's denunciation and disgrace brings to harrowing life the human drama that was central to the nation's political tribulations in the dark years of betrayal, the blacklist, and naming names. I Married a Communist is an American tragedy as only Philip Roth could write it.
Disconcerting echoes of Roth's relationship with Claire Bloom, as revealed in her memoir, Leaving the Doll's House, haunt Roth's angry but oddly inert 23rd novel. As in American Pastoral, Roth again deals with the Newark of his youth, and with the sons of Jewish immigrants to whom America has given opportunity and even riches--and how they are swept off course by the forces of history. Roth's old alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, narrates the story of Ira Ringold, aka Iron Rinn, a supremely idealistic political radical and celebrated radio star of the 1950s who is blacklisted and brought to ruin when his wife, Eva Frame (a self-hating Jewish actress born Chava Fromkin), writes an expose called I Married A Communist. The impetus for Eva's treacherous act is Ira's insistence that she evict her 24-year-old daughter from their house; the resemblance to Bloom's revelations of Roth's similar demand is too close to miss, and Roth's shrill belaboring of the issue seems a thinly disguised vendetta. Even high-pitched scenes of family conflict don't bring the novel to life. One problem is that the flat flashback narration shared between the 64-year-old Nathan and Ira's 90-year-old brother, Murray, is stultifyingly dull. Some fine Roth touches do appear: his evocation of the Depression years through the McCarthy era has clarity and vigor. But Ira's aggressively boorish behavior as he struggles with his conscience over having abandoned his Marxist ideals to assume a bourgeois lifestyle is never credible, and his turgid ideological rants against the American government are jackhammers of repetitious invective. In addition, the depiction of an adolescent Nathan as a precocious writer and social philosopher and the saintly Murray's infallible memory of long conversations with Ira--even between Ira and Eva in bed--challenge the reader's credulity. For those who lived through the years Roth evokes, this novel will have some resonance. For others, its belligerent tone and lack of dramatic urgency will be a turn-off. 150,000 first printing; $150,000 ad/promo.