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Sunday, November 22, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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`Communist' Misses Out On That Old Roth Charm

Special To The Seattle Times

------------------------------- "I Married a Communist" by Philip Roth Houghton Mifflin, $26 -------------------------------

There was a time when Philip Roth wrote some of the funniest sentences in the English language ("Goodbye, Columbus"; "Portnoy's Complaint"). There was a time when he wrote some of the most beautiful sentences in the English language ("The Ghost Writer").

Now?

Now he writes pedantic novels that win major literary awards. He over-explains. He seems intent on resurrecting every last, lost aspect of mid-century Newark, N.J., no matter how irrelevant to the story at hand.

At one point in "I Married a Communist," his 23rd book, every corner store, every immigrant-owned shop in the Italian section of Newark's first ward is ticked off: ". . . past Melillo's fruit and vegetable stand, past Giordano's bakery, past Mascellino's bakery, past Arre's Italian Tasty Crust Bakery . . ." It goes like this for paragraphs. Is Roth meticulously resurrecting the American ruin of Newark, as the title page trumpets? Or is he engaging in the greatest example of literary narcissism since J.D. Salinger told us the entire contents of the Glass family medicine cabinet?

The story here, when it shows up, is fascinating. Nathan Zuckerman, Roth's alter ego for eight of his last 11 novels, runs into Murray Ringold, his old high school English teacher, at a summer Shakespeare program in the Berkshires. For six nights, in Scheherazade fashion, 90-year-old Murray recounts the story of his younger brother, Ira, a fellow traveler and radio actor (known professionally as Iron Rinn) who was blacklisted and ruined during the McCarthy era.

Interspersed with Murray's monologue is Zuckerman's own remembrances of Ira. In October 1948, biking to the library to return biographies of great, uncompromising Americans like Nathan Hale, Zuckerman saw his English teacher and "a giant wearing glasses" putting up storm windows. The giant was Ira.

Ira took this sharp kid under his wing, encouraging him in his studies and in his zealotry. Together they attended a 1948 Henry Wallace rally and met Paul Robeson. Ira took Nathan to Zinc Town, the dormant Jersey mining community where Ira owned a shack, and introduced him to real working men. Essentially Ira is the first in a series of surrogate fathers for young Zuckerman that would culminate in The Ghost Writer's E. I. Lonoff.

This dual story-telling technique is effective in elucidating the complexity of the human condition - particularly when it comes to Ira's wife, radio actress Eve Frame (real name: Chava Fromkin), and her pudgy, 23-year-old daughter, named, ironically, Sylphid. These two come off as creepy and menacing in Murray's account, but lighter, more amusing, in Nathan's. At one point in Murray's monologue, Sylphid is viciously demanding her mother abort Ira's child; a scene later she is making young Nathan feel at ease at his first New York dinner party. Which is the real Sylphid? Both, of course.

There are, in other words, many sides to us, many truths. Murray recounts what his brother might have been if not for this or that piece of bad luck. A hit man for the Jewish mob? A fudge entrepreneur? "He never discovered his life, Nathan . . ." Murray says. "Eve didn't marry a Communist; she married a man perpetually hungering after his life."

Against this human complexity is the blunt simplicity of the McCarthyite attack. Eve betrays Ira with a book that becomes Roth's title, "I Married a Communist," turning him into a Russian saboteur. Ira is then skewered by the press, who, according to Murray, "empty life of its incongruities, of its meaningless, messy contingencies," and "impose on it instead the simplification that coheres - and misapprehends everything." This tendency continues in the gossip-mongering media of today, Roth suggests.

There is an older man's wisdom in the book - particularly when discussing the inevitability of betrayal in life - but an older man's foibles as well. Roth's descriptions, even on the first page, are limp: "He was altogether natural in his manner and posture while in his speech verbally copious.. . . ," Roth writes.

Worse, he seems intent on replacing dialogue with diatribe. Roth used to write such great conversations. Now we get diatribe. Everyone yaps for pages at a time. When Murray tells us what Ira said to some bigots in his WWII platoon, the bigots don't get a word in edgewise. Ira lectures them. It seems so unreal. The scene doesn't spring to life because there is no back-and-forth. It's about as visually exciting as a political pamphlet.

"I Married a Communist" is better than Roth's previous two novels, which won, respectively, the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. This novel, I'm sure, will be well-reviewed as well. It's better than nine-tenths of the books out there. It just doesn't come close to what Roth used to produce.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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