By Gene Lyons
Andrews McMeel Syndication
The recent death of Philip Roth, America’s greatest living novelist, came as a shock. Although he was 85, and had written movingly of his failing health, the strength of his voice never faltered. “Old age isn’t a battle,” Roth wrote in his 2007 novel, “Everyman.” “Old age is a massacre.”
A few years later, he’d made a wry joke about his forthcoming obituary: “Even in death, you get a bad review!”
And so it was. Scarcely had news of Roth’s death registered among his millions of readers than both The New York Times and Washington Post weighed in with columns complaining of his literary sins. Both read like parodies of the kind of moralistic cant his work had always inspired.
In the Times, one Dara Horn complained that Roth failed to accurately portray persons like herself: “The Jewish New Jersey women I know are talented professionals in every field, and often in those two thankless professions that Roth quite likely required to thrive: teachers and therapists,” she scolded. Alas, the novelist “never had the imagination to give these women souls.”
Horn gave no sign of having read anything more recent than the anarchic 1969 satire “Portnoy’s Complaint,” leaving her roughly 30 books behind.
The Post weighed in with an essay by a male literary scholar at the University of Notre Dame agonizing about “the problem of aggressively heterosexual white men in American literature.”
Sigh. If the professors haven’t killed off American literature yet, it’s surely not for lack of trying.
On the other hand, maybe my kvetching about a couple of dopey columns in the face of the great outpouring of heartfelt responses that Roth’s death inspired makes me uncomfortably like one of his obsessed, irascible characters. The Times Book Review assembled a list of writers as various as Michael Lewis, Stephen King, Daphne Merkin, Richard Ford and Joyce Carol Oates – 23 in all – to weigh in on their favorite Roth novels.
For me, it’s “My Life as a Man,” along with Roth’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1997 novel “American Pastoral,” an elegiac saga of American lives coming apart during the Vietnam years – a psychic wound that’s nowhere close to healing. It’s the story of how a man, a family and a city can seemingly have everything, and then suddenly nothing under the awful pressure of what Roth called “the indigenous American berserk.”
“American Pastoral” will be read as long as people read novels.
‘The Great American Novel’
We’d fallen out of touch in recent years, Philip and I. Back in 1973, I’d written a review of his baseball book “The Great American Novel” in the Arkansas Gazette. It argued that Roth was not so much a “Jewish” writer as a New Jersey regionalist – a state perched on the ragged edge of the continent, half-immigrant and half-Midwestern. Unofficial motto: “Oh yeah, who says?”
A place where everybody was on the edge of becoming something else, where chutzpah was a virtue, and aggravating specimens like Roth’s frantic onanist Alexander Portnoy were everywhere. To my surprise, Roth wrote asking how somebody in Little Rock knew so much about New Jersey.
After an exchange of letters, he invited me to visit him at his East 79th Street apartment the next time I came to Manhattan. We got on easily. Philip was a warm, witty conversationalist. He offered to help me place an essay called “The Artificial Jewboy” – the title cribbed from Flannery O’Connor, the themes from “Portnoy” – about growing up Irish Catholic in a Jewish neighborhood.
“So they said things about the goyim at the Portnoy dinner table as we said about the (Jews) – and apparently with a good deal more frequency and less ambivalence,” I wrote. “So what? I knew that already.”
It was Portnoy’s struggles with ethnic tribalism that I’d found liberating. Jewish? Irish? Everybody’s grandma knew how to fasten a straitjacket.
Today, the piece strikes me as pretentious juvenilia. Even so, Philip saw promise, made a few suggestions, and persuaded Moment, a Jewish literary magazine, to publish it – the only kind of periodical that could have risked doing so. He helped with other essays, too, and vouched for me with editors I’d never have approached on my own.
Debt of gratitude
Many owed him a similar debt of gratitude; the writers and editors Roth nurtured are legion.
A year or two later, Diane and I visited Philip at his retreat in the Connecticut Berkshires. On a walk in the woods, he complimented my wife to me – an Arkansas girl occasionally patronized to her face by New England academics. He liked it that she wasn’t awed by his fame, and hadn’t yet decided what she thought of him apart from it.
I mentioned her childhood friendship with Brooks Robinson, the Hall of Fame baseball player. Philip Roth wasn’t her first celebrity.
But America’s infamous literary misogynist had grasped her emotional integrity in a single take, and told me how lucky I was to have her.
Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President”.