I Married A Communist, by Philip Roth

Finished 10-8-08, rating 2.5, fiction, pub. 1999

Nathan Zuckerman, the narrator from American Pastoral, is back and this time he is tackling the McCarthy era.  Nathan reconnects with his high school English teacher, Murray Ringold, after many years and the two reminisce  about that turbulent time in their lives.  Murray’s brother, Ira, was a famous radio actor back in the day and took Nathan under his wing.    Now that Ira is dead Nathan gets to find out everything he had not known about his mentor when he was younger.

Ira was a Jewish communist and marries a beautiful actress in hopes of living the American dream.  He had money, a beautiful wife, an expensive home, fans who loved him, and hopes for a child one day.  Instead he was thrust into an unsatisfying marriage that came with a troubled and spiteful step daughter.  When the marriage went south, his wife fingered him as a communist.

I really didn’t like this book much.  It lacked a story I cared about it.  I wasn’t drawn to the characters.  It made some fine points about that period in American history, but I found myself skimming paragraphs at a time.  I much preferred American Pastoral.  The next book for the class is The Human Stain.

American Pastoral, by Philip Roth

Book CoverFinished 9-23-08, rating 3.5/5, fiction, pub. 1997

“Was everyone’s brain as unreliable as his?  Was he the only one unable to see what people were up to?  Did everyone slip around the way he did, in and out, in and out, a hundred different times a day go from being smart to being smart enough, to being as dumb as the next guy, to being the dumbest bastard who ever lived?  Was it stupidity deforming him, the simpleton son of a simpleton father, or was life just one big deception that everyone was on to except him?”           Chapter 8

This multigenerational story encompasses the social upheaval of the 1960’s and the issue of Jewish assimilation with authority and skill.  Nathan Zuckerman, a writer and fan of Seymour (Swede) Levov, the Jewish golden boy of New Jersey, is asked to to dinner by Swede and is excited at the prospect of helping a childhood hero.  After a disappointing dinner Zuckerman learns of Swede’s death at a class reunion and feels compelled to tell Swede’s story as he sees it.

Swede is the pride of the Jewish community, the blond, confident, athletic boy bridges the gap between cultures.  He marries a Catholic beauty queen and they have a daughter, Merry.  He takes over his father’s successful glove business and the family moves to the country and enjoy a nice house with land.  Swede’s life is good and he has everything he has ever wanted.  Then America goes into Vietnam and ignites a storm of violence and protest in the United States.  A teen-aged Merry becomes embroiled in the cause and does the unthinkable, changing not only her life, but the lives of everyone around her.

I liked the story, although heartbreaking.  It was an up close and personal view of the unraveling of a life which in turn causes destruction of everyone involved.  I cannot say that I am a fan of Roth or his convoluted writing style.  There comes a point when the self-examination and constant questioning just becomes too much to make the book truly enjoyable.  If I hadn’t been taking a class I may not have made it past page 50, but I’m glad I did.  The book was worthwhile.  I’ll find out as the class continues onto the next book whether Philip Roth is an acquired taste.

A few words from Philip Roth

“A Jewish man with parents alive is a fifteen-year-old boy, and will remain a fifteen-year-old boy till they die.”

“History… is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”

“I cannot and do not live in the world of discretion, not as a writer, anyway. I would prefer to, I assure you – it would make life easier. But discretion is, unfortunately, not for novelists.”

“The road to hell is paved with works-in-progress.”

“When you publish a book, it’s the world’s book. The world edits it.”

Philip Roth class

Today was my first Philip Roth class.  We are reading American Pastoral first and were to have read the first 100 pages today.  I can’t go too much into the book because I haven’t finished reading it yet, but wanted to tell a little about the class itself.  It’s a continuing education class from a local university, so there is no credit or grade given.  You take the class to learn about something new. 

I had American Pastoral in my ‘to read’ pile and thought there was no better opportunity to read it and learn.  There were 20 people in the class and I was by far the youngest.  But, even if I felt a little conspicuous I was not alone since there is also only one man in the class.  Most of the discussion was taken up by the setting of the book, growing up in the 1950’s and I enjoyed the many perspectives of the class.  I did not grow up in the 50’s and certainly do not speak for a whole generation, so, I’ll have to wait and see if I have anything of real value to add.  To be honest, I really did enjoy hearing everyone else’s take on the decade, the war, the culture.

Our instructor loves Philip Roth.  The most interesting thing I learned about him today was the fact that he writes standing up due to severe back pain.  Virginia Woolf also wrote standing up.  Does anyone know another author who writes standing up?  I can’t even imagine it really. 

If you have a chance to take a class and learn something new you will be better off for it.  It’s not just the subject matter you learn, but also the knowledge that everyone in the class has to share.