The Book Club

Writers and Other Betrayers

Dear Katha,

I’m 43. I supported the NLF in college. Khmers too, for a while. Pol Pot, my boy!

Do I think a Polish cutie will show up in the next Roth novel, and that the renunciations of this book will go by the boards? Maybe. Why not? Though to judge from the impotence talk in American Pastoral , the hijinks would be pretty tame. 

Still, I take this book on its terms, and the withdrawal feels genuine for now. Seems to me the waning of Zuckerman’s desires has allowed him at last to get his face out of his navel, and to take on a project that is not narcissistic, that is about America.

And I count it as Philip Roth’s achievement that we are curious about the writer’s life again. I’ve been bored with his life for years. He wanted us to care about his bad back, his women troubles, his ambition. This book seems laced with ruefulness over that previous indulgence. For Zuckerman is now sitting out in the woods for six nights with an old mensch, principled Murray, who, caught in major social currents, betrayed no one, and meanwhile Zuckerman has spent his life going from woman to woman, book to book (Betrayals R Us). 

Then, too, the desk-bound life is fairly bloodless, and writers often envy people of action. That is a big part of Nathan’s love for Ira. Forty years later he’s proud of his connection to this passionate alive man, and to prove it he notes that he was rejected for a Fulbright because of the friendship.

How many tears are we supposed to shed over a lost Fulbright? But Roth takes this seriously. Those are his core values: postwar Jewish ambition. As you point out, Zuckerman was never actually going to become a Communist. He wouldn’t thwart himself, not this nerdy Jewish striver.

Thus, for me, the most felt scene in the book: the confrontation between Zuckerman’s father and Ira. The 16-year-old boy has found a new father, Ira, and the displaced father calls Ira to his chiropodist office to confront him. He asks, Are you now a Communist? With tears choking his throat as he recalls his dead brothers, he demands an answer because he believes–not unreasonably–that the association may endanger his son’s ambitions.
And Ira lies. Ira says he is not a Communist. Then the father asks Nathan to ask Ira, and Nathan repeats this question he thinks no one has the right to ask. And Ira lies to Nathan too. There is so much feeling in this scene, so much father-love. (And as I reread it today, I took your point about how male this book is.)

But I’m intrigued by the ethics of this situation. You believe that to ask about someone’s Communism is not a legitimate question. Yet the question is being asked, all over America, even by some reasonable voices. And when the question is asked, the Communist lies. 

Gee, what does that remind me of?