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Philip Roth, RIP

If you are doing work that is expressive of what you believe and hope for, you need to "read" the arc of Philip Roth's career more than any of his individual titles.

WikimediaWikimediaLike a lot of people born at the very end of the Baby Boom, my first exposure to Philip Roth was not from his own books, but in the pages of Mad magazine. In the early '70s, it seemed like every issue had one of more gags related to Portnoy's Complaint, his best-selling novel in which the eponymous character describes masturbating with a piece of liver. A Mad anthology featured a parody of the film version Goodbye, Columbus, lazily titled Hoo Boy Columbus!, if I remember correctly. By the time I got around to reading that powerful short-story collection about Jewishness, class, and assimilation, I already knew all the key plot points of the titular novella.

With Roth's passing, an entire era of American letters closes up shop for good. Born in Newark, New Jersey in 1933, Roth came of age when being a novelist meant you could be or were even expected to be a culture hero, too. Especially if like him, you were partial to dropping turds in the cultural punch bowl or, like Norman Mailer or Gore Vidal, a raging narcissist who mistook the ability to write a sharp sentence for seriousness of thought on every topic du jour. Nowadays, our "great" writers are either pursuing trivial pursuits (Jonathan Franzen's most-heartfelt cause seems to be preserving bird habitat in Central Park) or toiling in relative anonymity, displaced by other forms of media, especially TV shows such as The Wire, The Sopranos, or Mad Men that do the cultural work once reserved for literature.

Along with Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud, Roth was part of the post-war Jewish triumvirate of ethnically and literarily serious novelists, what Bellow once called the "Hart, Schaffner, and Marx" of American letters (HSM was an upper-middle-class men's clothing brand back when such things mattered). Like other writers of his background (especially from Newark, which also birthed such unassimilable heroes as Milton Friedman and Leslie Fiedler), Roth could be deliberately and offensively Jewish even as he cultivated a Henry James shtick, consciously toggling between worlds stinking of gefilte fish and organ meats and made boring and tedious by reserved, WASPish decorum. He's certainly not the last American writer of Jewish heritage, but he may well be the last Yid. Roth's specific ethnicity (and that of other white ethnics who were Italian and Irish) just doesn't matter that much anymore. Everybody these days is an insider/outsider, the symbolic role played by many of his characters, and in a world of post-colonial identity politics and intersectionality, being Jewish, male, and first-generation college doesn't cut the mustard, Kosher or not. The same is true of his sexual fixations, especially in books such as Portnoy's Complaint. I was born 30 years after Roth but even by the time I started reading "serious" literature and entered grad school for English in the late 1980s, his sexual revolution seemed as distant to my times as that of the Founding Fathers.

So is there something we can take from his ouevre, his life, his example? The shelf of books, fiction and memoir, he wrote isn't just voluminous, it's groaning under the weight of great passages and deep insights into the human condition, if we still believe in such a quaint, universalistic notion. Even his sillier works, such as The Great American Novel, a satire of a fictional baseball league set during World War II, rewards perusal. He introduced Americans to "writers from the other Europe" in a series of books written by authors trapped behind the Iron Curtain or exiled from it (a conventional political liberal, he was a great American defender of free speech in all its forms).

Much more to the point than any single work of Roth's is the constant searching, seeking, and maturation he displayed throughout his career. In the wake of the Kitty Genovese murder, he wrote in 1961 that "we now live in an age in which the imagination of the novelist lies helpless before what he knows he will read in tomorrow morning's newspaper." Like many serious writers (well, at least many serious male writers, such as Thomas Pynchon, Robert Coover, and John Barth)—he retreated somewhat into writing about writing (so-called metafiction or surfiction) and broad satire. To his credit, he moved past that stage and, like Bob Dylan in music, created at least one work that "mattered" every few years until he hung up his spurs in 2012. Later works such as 1997's American Pastoral, 2000's The Human Stain, and especially 2004's The Plot Against America show a man trying to make sense of a world that he was raised to inherit but that had gone missing due to the vagaries of history. The Plot Against America is an alternative history in which Charles Lindbergh becomes an isolationist president in 1940; a savage if somewhat mistaken take on George W. Bush unilateralist foreign policy, it's far more relevant to Donald Trump's presidency.

"Lord have mercy on us, we want a 'great' writer," wrote Leslie Fiedler back in 1951.

It is at once the comedy and tragedy of 20th-century American letters that we simply cannot keep a full stock of contemporary "great novelists."...From moment to moment we have the feeling that certain claims...are secure, but even as we name them they shudder and fall.

Fiedler's humorous ire was directed at F. Scott Fitzgerald, who is U.S. literature's equivalent of a one-hit wonder (maybe one-and-a-half). But the charge is true of Roth's rough contemporaries, such as Thomas Pynchon, who stopped "mattering" shortly after the publication of Gravity's Rainbow over 40 years ago. Don DeLillo is younger than Roth, but close enough for comparison. After spending the 1970s and '80s writing books about terroristic violence, including one novel that ends with the destruction of the World Trade Center, DeLillo failed us all after 9/11 by taking years to write a minor work that escaped from Ground Zero as quickly as possible.

Roth, like Toni Morrison (born in 1931), kept at it, long and hard, trying to make sense of a world that escaped the conditions into which they were born. For all of us who expect to live long lives and who are doing work that isn't merely remunerative but expressive of what we believe and hope for, we need to "read" Philip Roth's career more than any of his individual books. Like all of us, he never fully transcended his roots even as he hacked at them ruthlessly, lovingly, and obsessively. He couldn't quite make it into a world that was post-racial, post-feminist, post-everything. But he kept trying, which is no small victory over the Conqueror Worm.

Photo Credit: Dennis Van Tine/LFI/Photoshot/Newscom

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  • loveconstitution1789||

    Who?

    Reason could do bios on Libertarian candidates running for office around the USA but choose to do stuff like this instead.

  • Hugh Akston||

    You could be contributing something useful to society, but instead you make comments like that.

  • Crusty Juggler||

    Reading books is for nerdy fags, so go read some more books, nerdy fagboy.

  • Dr Fallout||

    "Ohhh, that's a bingo!"

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Yes, not reading your choice of shitty books makes one a nerdy fagboy.

    Nothing like purported elitists trying to put down people who don't read what you think they should read.

  • Agnes||

    Roth is almost anti-elitist but you wouldn't know this if you've never read him. Try giving him a read instead of pissing all over someone who, regardless of personal taste, is a literary genius. I'll agree with you that there are a lot of people out there who get off to art which is prestigious because it makes them look cool, but I'm not sure any would be true fans of Roth. This isn't 'On the Road.' The dude can write things you've felt but didn't think was possible to capture in a sentence.

    Nemesis is an easy and beautiful summer time read. I recommend it.

  • Butler T. Reynolds||

    Yeah, reading bios of computer nerds like me sounds like a hoot.

  • Alan Vanneman||

    Nice piece, Nick.

  • Crusty Juggler||

    BEST P*ECE EVAH!

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    Are there any other commenters that are entirely defined by one single comment?

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    The Rev's got "Carry on clingers" which is one line spread infinitely thin.

  • gormadoc||

    Crunchy or smooth?

  • Brandybuck||

    I'm the same age as Nick, but don't recall those bits in Mad. Maybe because I didn't know anything about Roth they just went over my head and completely missed my consciousness.

    But first year of college I had to read Goodbye, Columbus and it was dreadful. As many consider it his best, it sort of put me off wanting to read anything else. Just didn't resonate with my west coast middle class goyim.

  • Hugh Akston||

    I wasn't that impressed by The Dying Animal, but The Plot Against America has been on my list to check out for a while. Of course, Roh's most important literary heir is SugarFree.

  • Pro Libertate||

    That's a distressing thought.

    Surprisingly, I've never read Roth. However, I did watch "Goodbye, Polumbus."

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    I haven't read the book, but The Human Stain is a great movie.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    or, like Norman Mailer or Gore Vidal, a raging narcissist who mistook the ability to write a sharp sentence for seriousness of thought

    I'm always, always, always happy to hear shit talking of Norman Mailer. Especially this close to Tom Wolfe's death. The Far superior New Journalist.

  • Pro Libertate||

    I have to say that I quite like some of Vidal's historical fiction—especially Julian and Creation. But Vidal was otherwise a well-read idiot. Go figure.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    I don't have an opinion, negative or positive, on Vidal. Just Mailer.

  • Pro Libertate||

    I know, I just went on a Vidal tangent.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    And I'm happy you did. Because now I get to reiterate that I hate Norman Mailer. It's my only purpose in life. When I die, my ghost will haunt this earth, whispering to children that the Executioner's Song was bloated drivel.

  • Pro Libertate||

    I mention The Naked and the Dead below. That's the only one I could get through.

  • Benitacanova||

    The Naked and the Dead was a masterpiece. But then his head swelled and rotted. Roth on the other hand never even had the beginnings of a great book.

  • gormadoc||

    Ugh, Toni Morrison.

  • Jerryskids||

    Like a lot of the other authors mentioned in the piece, Roth was just too....what's Yiddish for je ne c'est quoi? for me. I know these are all authors we're supposed to be familiar with, but, meh. Kind of struck me as an adult version of Judy Bloom. Trying to say something big and important about the world and the human condition and you know all that shit's just inside your head, right?

  • Crusty Juggler||

    I like Pynchon, and Tom Wolfe was wonderful.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    I was very sad about Tom Wolfe last week. So I agree that he was great, fag.

  • Crusty Juggler||

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    It's a warm blanket around my soul.

  • Crusty Juggler||

    It's like a Fleshlite STU of fun.

  • Jerryskids||

    I like Wolfe, I didn't see where he was mentioned (or should be mentioned) in the same discussion as Roth. Other than the coincidental timing of their deaths, perhaps.

  • Pro Libertate||

    Are You There, God? It's Me, Philip.

  • Jerryskids||

    In 30 volumes.

  • Pro Libertate||

    Part I. I liked The Naked and the Dead, but jeez is that a long book. And I like a number of longer books, but it had a NEVER GOING TO END feel.

  • Pro Libertate||

    That's Mailer, of course. For some reason I think of him when I think of long books. And me a Dumas fan!

  • gormadoc||

    I didn't think anybody was a Duras fan. They needlessly complicated Worf son of Mogh's life and dragged out the Klingon episodes.

  • Pro Libertate||

    Did he write long novels, too? I mean, you can't plot all the time.

  • Juice||

    Who?

  • Crusty Juggler||

    Literally your mom.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Crusty really like this guy and you are harshing his boner.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    High falutin' book-learnin' threads.

    You know what we think of those.

  • Pro Libertate||

    One of the editors—might be Nick—is a Thomas Berger fan. This is a good thing.

  • Crusty Juggler||

    I did not know that, and yes it is. I assume it is Nick because, like all good men who are excellent lovers* he was an English major.

    *ladies...

  • Pro Libertate||

    I think there was a retrospective article here on Berger when he died in 2014.

  • Crusty Juggler||

    I love you, but your weird cancer is weird: Canvanaugh (Hit and Run Moses) wrote about him in 2006

  • Pro Libertate||

    I commented in that non-threaded thread. No obituary for Berger in 2014? That makes me sad.

  • Crusty Juggler||

    There probably was - don't rely on my google skills.

    In fact there was one, I am just too stupid and drunk to find it.

    I have not read any Berger, because there isn't enough vapid nudity, but Little Big Man is a good movie.

    Cavanaugh was cool.

  • Crusty Juggler||

    Yeah, I wanted to italicize it all on purpose.

  • Pro Libertate||

    There's sex and violence in his books. He's really a great writer.

    I liked Tim, too. Wonder what he's doing now?

  • Crusty Juggler||

    I would like to know what he is doing, too. He was one of the writers that got me into a libertarian-minded thought process, along with noted cosmo squishes Nick and Matt, but Tim and Moynihan had a niche rebellious intellectual edge to them that I found very appealing.

  • Pro Libertate||

    Washington Examiner?

  • Crusty Juggler||

    Tim Cavanaugh is T. Becket Adams?

    My God.

  • Aloysious||

    For all of us who expect to live long lives and who are doing work that isn't merely remunerative but expressive of what we believe and hope for...

    Weed, Mexicans, and the butt secks?

  • gormadoc||

    How dare people hope to engage in recreational drugs, associating with whoever they damn well please, and practice (gay) anal sex?! They must be insane. As long as good people like Aloysius are around they shall never be free.

  • Sevo||

    Never bothered to read 'Portnoy's'; the theme was obvious from the constant comments, which sort of suggested that the J-school critics were *shocked*, and that shock was irrelevant to me.
    Not happy to see him dead, but Pipes (yesterday) had far more effect on humankind.

  • BigT||

    Pipes' "Freedom and Property" was great

  • Red Rocks White Privilege||

    What's interesting about Roth and Abbie Hoffman, another degenerate, is that despite their idealization of the middle-class WASP-ish neighborhoods they grew up in, they both set out to totally subvert the society that provided them with such an upbringing.

  • lafe.long||

    I think I read "The Breast" when I was around 11.

  • Hank Ferrous||

    Crikey, Pynchon wrote a lot of more accessible reads than Gravity's Rainbow, most of them excellent. His body of work speaks for itself, Nick clearly prefers Roth. Toni Morrison, ugh, as has been said. Portnoy's Complaint seemed daring to me when I was 11 years
    old, so Mad magazine using Roth makes perfect sense.

  • Mongo||

    I remember the MAD mag parodies.

    I also think that Toni Morrison's Beloved is one of the best American novels around.

    My Aunt Blabby slammed a book to the table and proclaimed it 'PORNOGRAPHY!'. It was a new-ish Roth book.

  • Lenise Williams||

    I am so happy "that. "boyfriend is back" he left me 6 months ago. but with the help of dr_mack@ (yahoo.) com" my relationship was restored instantly.—–"
    NEW YORK.UNITED STATES

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