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When he was starting out as a writer, Philip Roth used to get up in the morning, look in the bathroom mirror and yell, “Attack! Attack! Attack!”
And so he did, for most of the next six decades, whether he was taking aim at his own (or others) religion, our sexual mores, the tyranny of love, those charlatans in D.C., the extravagancies of men behaving badly, or the false sense of surety we have in this notion of identity.
Throughout his long and much-decorated career, America’s greatest post-World War II novelist dissected himself and us with wit and intelligence, in a style that was diamond sharp and insightful, but that never called attention to itself.
“Sheer playfulness and deadly seriousness are my closest friends,” he once said, and indeed, Roth saw both sides of life — its existential dread and the absolute silliness of it all.
Roth’s arrival on the scene was heralded not just due to his outsized talent, but also by the audacity he demonstrated in finding comedy in the lives and exploits of Jewish characters. When the New Yorker ran his story “Defender of the Faith” in its March 14, 1959 issue, a battle began, with the Anti-Defamation League leading the charge, that would dog Roth for much of his career. In fact, a collection of Roth’s nonfiction published last year by the Library of America is rife with the author’s recurring protestations that he was not then, or ever, a so-called self-hating Jew.
“Goodbye Columbus,” his great novella, earned the National Book Award in 1960, proving Roth could more than ably handle a (mostly) straightforward type of Jamesian narrative. The short stories included in the book also showed Roth was not afraid to tackle his own heritage with humor and irreverence.
That latter trait would come to the fore in many subsequent Roth novels, most notably in 1969’s “Portnoy’s Complaint,” in which the protagonist, a single, momma’s boy named Alexander Portnoy, tells his psychoanalyst his problems, much of them having to do with sexual frustration and a penchant for auto-eroticism. Alexander specializes in an outré style of onanism which at times involves various, um, props, taken from (and then returned to) the family refrigerator. The novel created an overnight celebrity in Roth, and made parents of teenage boys worriedly examine their dinner plates for the next few years.
There are dozens of Roth novels that followed, many of them great or near great. “Zuckerman Unbound” from 1981, is one of the funniest novels I’ve read; “My Life as a Man” (1974) delivers an original take on breaking up; the 1972 Gogol takeoff, “The Breast” sends up male desire; and there are tough lessons learned in “The Professor of Desire,” “The Anatomy Lesson” and “The Dying Animal.” “The Counterlife” is a sophisticated, postmodern, “Rashomon”-style tale about two brothers dealing with midlife issues of love and death, that proved another critical favorite.
Several of these novels are narrated by recurring alter-egos, the most famous being Nathan Zuckerman, a writer much like Roth. The author enjoyed playing with the idea of the self in many of his novels, underscoring the slippery notion of identity, meanwhile poking fun at readers who liked to play the literary sleuthing game of “what’s fact and what’s fiction.”
Roth also dabbled in nonfiction, writing a memoir that may or may not have been 100 percent accurate (“The Facts: A Novelist’s Autobiography” from 1988), and opining beautifully about his own father’s aging and death in “Patrimony.”
Roth saw both sides of life -- its existential dread and the absolute silliness of it all.
Meanwhile, 2004’s “The Plot Against America” is a work of fiction now hailed as having been remarkably prescient: It served up an alternative history whereby the racist and anti-Semite Charles Lindberg defeats Franklin Roosevelt in 1940, and the United States subsequently becomes an ugly, hate-filled place.
Then there’s the brilliant late trio (1997 to 2000) of Pulitzer-winner “American Pastoral,” “I Married a Communist” and “The Human Stain,” which only confirmed that as obsolescence encroached, Roth still had it. Together, these books painted a troubling picture of America.
By his own opinion and that of many others, Roth’s greatest novel is “Sabbath’s Theater.” It tells the story of Mickey Sabbath, a retired puppeteer who has become a dirty old man of epic proportions. He is Falstaff on an I.V. cocktail of Viagra, Cialis and kosher wine, or a character right out of Rabelais, had the French Renaissance writer lived long enough to have had a subscription to Hustler. In these pages, Roth set out to let himself go. “That’s what you’re looking for as a writer when you’re working. You’re looking for your own freedom. To lose your inhibition, to delve deep into your memory and experiences and life, and then to find the prose that will persuade the reader,” he told the Guardian in 2013.
The result was a tour de force — a virtuosic performance by a writer at the height of his powers; it deservedly earned the National Book Award and was a finalist for the 1996 Pulitzer in fiction.
In 2012, Roth shocked the world by announcing he was retiring. And so he did.
Throughout his career, Roth generously sought to call attention to the fiction that inspired him, be it Kafka, Henry Greene, James and many others. Yet of his own talents, he demonstrated a strain of humility that bordered on the capricious: “Making fake biography, false history, concocting a half-imaginary existence out of the actual drama of my life is my life. There has to be some pleasure in this job, and that’s it. To go around in disguise. To act a character. To pass oneself off as what one is not. To pretend. The sly and cunning masquerade.” For readers, it was nothing less than serious fun.
In most of his 30-plus novels, Roth spoke, in Emerson’s words, the “rude truth,” whether it was about sexuality, relationships, family, politics or life in general. His last few books, generally agreed to be minor works, are powerful still for the ways in which they took on the fragilities of aging and the sad fact that no one gets out of this thing alive. As he wrote in one of his last novels, “Exit Ghost,”: “Old age isn’t a battle; it’s a massacre.”
I’ve met a handful of my literary idols over the years: Mailer, Updike and others. Toni Morrison is still out there awaiting my shy “Hello.” Bellow and Yates I missed, despite their late years spent in Boston. And now my favorite author himself is off the table.
This means I will do what Roth would prefer anyway, and simply go back to the books. In them, I’m sure to find once again a vision of American life that reaches back deep into the previous century, but that still feels fresh and vital.
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