This is one of the good Roth books (I really hate some of them) – well written, and with several important subjects addressed; McCarthyism, the failure of the American Left, and relationships between people with…um…issues.
Still, it’s a mixed bag. It has a weird structure, with a youngish narrator being told most of the events by an older man recalling them…only the narrator was there for some of the narrative so can provide his own perspective – and sometimes it becomes hard to remember who is talking or what they are saying. It’s a bit muddled and confusing, and not strictly necessary.
It starts out exploring the impact of the blacklist on people’s lives, and the impulses that drove good people into first the Henry Wallace Progressive movement and then to the Communist Party. It covers well the fine impulses that drove people there, and also the sheer misery of the CP’s twists and turns and what they meant for those people. It explains how the New Dealers and liberals were the real target of the red-baiters, and how much nasty score-settling went on.
But two thirds of the way it seems to change tack and sentiment; the liberal and communist characters are suddenly driven not by personal or political conviction but by their own emotional flaws. Some of this is revelation of the plot, and some of it feels like Roth changed his mind and started to write a different book.
And the portrayal of the mutually destructive relationship between the main protagonist and his wife, and her previous destructive relationships with men and with her daughter, are really horrible. It’s put into the mouths of those characters who are generally reliable and insightful witnesses, so we are supposed to take it as a true and honest account.
This is just misogyny, spiced up with some racial and class awkwardness. The knowledge that this is really about Roth’s relationship with Claire Bloom, and that many of the facts map on to the real story, makes it skin-crawling.
At the end Roth brings it back to the historical events covered in American Pastoral – the failure of liberalism in the face of Black-led riots and urban degeneration. It’s all hopeless and depressing, and the moral is that those who pursue political or civil goals based on the possibility of change are fools who waste their own time and put themselves and those they care about in harm’s way. There is some ‘bracketing’ of the view, but the argument against it which is offered doesn’t feel strong or deeply felt.
Very painful to read much of the time, although it is a mostly good book.