I decided to take a little trip back in time, to a novel published in 1998 by one of my favorite authors, Philip Roth. Maybe I needed a sense of stability in these seeming uncertain times, or maybe I wanted to ensure that I chose a book that would be worth reading. In any event, I knew that virtually anything by Philip Roth (and there is very little by Philip Roth I have not read) would make me think, make me appreciate that as much as things change they stay the same. And boy oh boy did I get my money’s worth (figuratively of course since I took it out from the library) from “I Married A Communist”.
Part of Roth’s American Trilogy, which includes The Human Stain and the Pulitzer Prize winning American Pastoral, I Married A Communist does not disappoint. Part political commentary, part story of love and vengeance and part mystery, I Married A Communist explores a difficult period of time in American history, focuses on some extreme personalities and emphasizes the importance of introspection.
The story begins in 1998, when the narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, runs into his beloved high school English teacher, Murray Ringold, the brother of Nathan’s childhood idol, Ira Ringold, aka Iron Rimm. Nathan had been Murray’s student 47 years earlier and when Nathan runs into him, Murray is 90 years old and enrolled as a student at a small New England college in a course entitled “Shakespeare at the Millennium”. Nathan and Murray spend the next 6 days recounting the story of Ira Ringold.
Nathan first met Ira in front of Murray’s house in October of 1948. For the next year and a half or so, Ira and Nathan spent a great deal of time together and enjoyed each other’s company, but there were things about Ira that Nathan did not know. After Nathan went off to college in 1950 they had very little contact. Ira was a radio star, performing under the name Iron Rimm. He was a large 6 foot 6 man, and a self-proclaimed Communist with a penchant for violence. While in the military and serving in Iran, Ira met Johnny O’Day, a staunch American Communist who influenced Ira’s political philosophy. While describing Ira’s story to Nathan, Murray muses that “It’s so fickle, isn’t it, who you wind up with, how you wind up?” Unlike Ira, O’Day lived every aspect of his life consistent with his political ideology. Ira and O’Day kept up a correspondence over the years.
When Nathan met Ira, Ira was married to the famous and glamorous actress, Eve Frame. Eve had been married three times before and had a difficult daughter, Sylphid, who, although an adult, lived at home with Eve and Ira and created various problems for an already tumultuous and volatile marriage. Despite his political convictions, Ira lived in luxury and tolerated Eve’s numerous parties and high society friends, including Bryden Grant, the descendant of Ulysses S Grant and his wife, Katrina Van Tassel. Grant was a gossip columnist with aspirations of becoming a Congressman (which he ultimately accomplished).
Before meeting Eve, Ira, a high school dropout, had worked in a record factory and in a zinc mine in Zinctown. Ira maintained a shack in Zinctown where he retreated when the life of luxury was too much for him.
After discovering one of Ira’s infidelities, and in a rage, Eve turned over Ira’s letters to O’Day to Grant and Van Tassell. They convinced her to write a memoir, entitled I Married A Communist, which resulted in Ira being blacklisted and losing his radio job. Solely by virtue of his familial relationship to Ira, Murray also lost his teaching job. And in 1998, Nathan discovers that as a result of his relationship with Ira, he was denied a Fulbright 25 years earlier. “Of course it should not be too surprising to find out that your life story has included an event, something important, that you have known nothing about…”
The relationship between Ira and Eve, the impact of the memoir and the complexity of devastating impact of no holds barred political ideology and ambition are brilliantly conceived in this WOW novel. There are also some great passages dealing with the relationship between literature and politics (“Politics is the great generalizer…and literature the great particularizer”) and the influence of overwhelming personal relationships and communications (“Occasionally now, looking back, I think of my life as one long speech that I’ve been listening to…Everyone perceiving experience as something not to have but to have so as to talk about it. Why is that?”).
The novel addresses so many interesting aspects of political and daily life as to make the reader realize that today’s tumult is yesterday’s story. This is a challenging and dense read and worth every minute! Reserve it now at Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on http://encore.cuyahoga.lib.oh.us/iii/encore/record/C__Rb11012105__Si%20married%20a%20communist__P0%2C1__Orightresult__X4?lang=eng&suite=gold