The Magazine

Inside Philip Roth

There’s a crime writer waiting to be identified.

Jun 18, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 38 • By JON L. BREEN
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Wherever you pigeonhole it generically, American Pastoral is a remarkable novel in style, ambition, scope, and theme, a towering work by a great writer. Though Roth sticks to an East Coast Jewish milieu, the story delineates a broader American canvas in the 20th century’s second half: the clashes of generations, the erosion of American manufacturing, the conflict of religions, the civil rights movement, 1960s counterculture and war protest, shifting values and attitudes. The gritty details of institutions and work lives are important to the narrative: The reader learns much about cattle breeding and the Miss America pageant, plus enough details of the glovemaking process to fill a textbook. No one could call Roth a minimalist.

In the early pages, Nathan tries to make sense of the events of his subject’s life. In the balance of the book (almost all from Swede’s point of view), the subject himself is trying to figure out the same thing, along with the truth of his daughter’s crime. Did she really do it? If she did, what was her motive? What in her family life brought her to that point? What could her father have done to prevent it? How did she escape the law? Who helped her? The latter question could have provided a whodunit, but as Roth/Zuckerman chooses to tell it, the reader already knows the answer before all the suspects appear as characters.

In a sense, Roth has given us an American Mystery of Edwin Drood. Charles Dickens, of course, died before he could finish that novel, leading many subsequent writers and theorists to finish it for him. Roth finished his. But everything from page 85 on is a postmodernist fiction-within-a-fiction that may or may not be accurate in its assumptions and speculations. Do we know for certain at that point that Meredith is guilty of the bombing she is assumed to have committed? Do we know who (or who else) was really involved? Do we know exactly what trauma had been visited on the Levov father?

In years to come, a writer willing to take on the challenge could note everything Zuckerman tells the reader about Levov up to page 85 and create an entirely different version of the story. It could be a tragedy (in common with Roth/Zuckerman’s), a comedy, a pure suspense story, an espionage thriller, a fair-play whodunit, or something else entirely.

I Married a Communist (1998) is the shortest and least of the trilogy, but it has its merits. Less explicitly a mystery than its predecessor, it is set in the blacklist period of the early 1950s. Again, the present-day Nathan is searching for the truth about a figure from his youth, a person much more important to him than Swede Levov. Ira Ringgold had been a successful radio actor under the unlikely professional name Iron Rinn, the fourth husband of former silent film star Eve Frame, who has also achieved great success in radio and would eventually sign her name to the supposed nonfiction memoir that gives Roth’s novel its title.  

Ringgold is an outspoken supporter of left-wing causes and a strong mentoring influence on Nathan, who met him through his high school English teacher, Ringgold’s brother Murray. The young Nathan had struggled to choose between political ideals and apolitical art. Years later, Nathan questions the nonagenarian Murray for the truth about Ira’s tragic life, and a large percentage of the book is Murray’s monologue. As Murray finishes his account, Nathan comes to learn what role he really played in his onetime hero’s life. 

In this novel, as in American Pastoral, the characters and their motivations are the puzzle, a puzzle that is, at least provisionally, solved in a concluding scene quite unlike the summations of classical detective novels (though everything is foreshadowed, the reader can’t glean the full story from the clues provided) but providing some of the same kind of satisfaction. And the final pages, told secondhand by Murray, with the reader knowing what event is coming but not knowing exactly what form it is going to take, bring suspense as powerful as any created by Alfred Hitchcock or Cornell Woolrich. 

In The Human Stain (2000), Coleman Silk is a 71-year-old retired classics professor. During the 1995-96 school year at Athena College, he had been teaching a course in ancient Greek literature to 14 students, two of whom had never shown up to class. One day, while calling roll, he asked his other students, “Does anyone know these people? Do they exist or are they spooks?” Unknown to him, both students were African American; his casual reference was taken not as a sarcastic allusion to ghosts but a racial slur, and a scandal erupted that resulted in Silk’s resignation from the faculty.