McCarthyism Still Generates Great Stories


By Philip Roth

Houghton Mifflin

336 pp., $26

The McCarthy era decimated a generation of writers, but from the start it has inspired some of America's most thought-provoking literature.

After watching the destruction of several friends and sparring with the House Committee on Un-American Affairs, Arthur Miller decided to write a play about the communist scare gripping the country.

In such a charged atmosphere, he knew he couldn't portray the crisis directly, but his research into the witchcraft trials in 17th-century Salem provided the perfect metaphorical setting. The result, his classic drama "The Crucible," went on to become one of the most often produced plays in American history. Remarkably, at its opening in 1953, one drama critic wrote that he couldn't see the relationship between Miller's drama and the government's effort to root out Communists. After all, he noted, there really weren't any witches.

But there really were Communists, and Philip Roth's new novel creates the conflicted life of one of them with such remarkable sensitivity that the old dichotomies between right and left, patriot and traitor seem wholly inadequate.

At 6-foot-6, Ira Ringold is a dead ringer for Abraham Lincoln. That uncanny resemblance and his fiery charisma eventually propel him from corny performances at union fund-raisers to a nationally broadcast radio show called "The Free and the Brave." Fame brings him money and prestige he can never reconcile with his beginnings as a ditch digger who ran away from home in his teens. Even his marriage to a glamorous actress fails to smooth his rough edges.

Ira is "a communist with a weakness for life." He emerged from the service after World War II thoroughly indoctrinated by a radical Marxist who taught him the paramount importance of organizing American labor. Since that time - in extreme poverty and extreme wealth - he's been haranguing anyone who will listen, and many who won't.

As the nation's paranoia rises, Ira remains foolishly oblivious to how precarious his position is. Tragically unable to compromise or even quiet his political principles, he leaves his wife plenty of ammunition to retaliate when he walks out. Her sensational expos, "I Married a Communist," ruins him and all his friends and colleagues.

Ira's story would be pathetic melodrama if not for the fascinating way it's told and interpreted. In 1997, all the violence and betrayal of that sad episode of personal and political history have faded into the past. But it's brought searingly alive again during six nights of storytelling by Ira's 90-year-old brother in a little lakeside cabin in New England. Murray Ringold's audience for this tale is one of his old high school students, Nathan Zuckerman, who idolized these rough, masculine brothers in the 1940s.

Now an old man himself, cloistered away in morose seclusion, Zuckerman listens to Murray's story as though it's a secret to an ancient puzzle. Reliving his teen years of heady political radicalism, he contemplates the nature of influence, friendship, and idolization with profound insight.

For Zuckerman - and for Roth, I suspect - the process of being taken in by some radical idea is a necessary step toward maturity, a step that inevitably leads to disillusionment but greater wisdom.

In retrospect, he clearly sees Ira's pomposity and naivet, but Zuckerman can't help but long for that lost sense of burning conviction that once seemed possible and entirely preferable to his confirmed fatalism.

On the heels of last year's Pulitzer Prize-winning "American Pastoral," Roth has again seamlessly woven the political and the personal. His description of Newark in the 1940s is at once panoramic and precise. There are no minor characters in a novel this careful. Even the briefest walk-ons seem endowed with all the complexity and depth of real life.

Speaking of the American revolutionaries, Murray notes that they were trying "to find words for a great purpose." In this novel, Roth has found those words. It's a bitter irony that the ravages of McCarthyism are still generating great literature.

* Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor.

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