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The Grapes of Roth

December 15, 2005 By:
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As those with any interest in the book world know by now, Philip Roth has become only the third living American writer to be chosen by the Library of America to have his complete works published in uniform editions. The two authors before him - Saul Bellow and Eudora Welty - have passed on since their anointments. That leaves Roth, who was also honored recently when a street was named after him in his hometown of Newark, N.J. The latter honor may be an even greater triumph than the former since Roth's name was vilified for years throughout north Jersey after what he wrote about his hometown in Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy's Complaint.

To celebrate the publication of the first two of a proposed eight Library of America volumes, an evening of tribute to Roth was scheduled in late September at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Lower Manhattan's Battery Park. All the elements for a spirited evening were in place. The speakers included David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker; Judith Thurman, biographer and staff writer at The New Yorker; Edward Rothstein, cultural critic at large for The New York Times; and Ross Miller, professor of English at the University of Connecticut and general editor of the Library of America Roth editions. The discussion sounded so promising I took the train up to see for myself.

But the evening turned out to be dispiriting. The Philip Roth these people talked about seemed nothing like the writer who wrote the books contained in the first two volumes: Goodbye, Columbus, Letting Go, When She Was Good, Portnoy's Complaint, Our Gang and The Breast. The individual the panelists kept referring to sounded like a domesticated animal, someone tamed of the wild qualities he displayed early in his career.

Perhaps that's what happens to you when the Library of America steps in - you become a sanctified literary figure to be spoken of in hushed tones, approached with a certain stultifying reverence. If that's the case, I think Roth should thank his new publishers and light out for the territory, like Huck Finn.

Of course, I don't believe for a second that Roth has been drained of his famous invective. Though it might appear that he has entered the grand old man phase of his long career, the writer still has the ability to shock us, to resurface as the bad boy of American letters.

But nothing of what I felt back in the early '60s when I first bought the paperback version of Goodbye, Columbus and clung to it like a bible was on display during the discussion at the Heritage Museum. What the presenters seemed to have forgotten was the charge of excitement that greeted Roth and stuck to him for years. He was the next great Jewish hope, joining his elders Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud, and proving again what glorious writers these upstart Jews could be.

You hear this kind of excitement in the statement that Bellow made after reading those early Roth stories. "Goodbye, Columbus is a first book, but not the book of a beginner. Unlike those of us who came howling into the world, blind and bare, Mr. Roth appears with nails, hair and teeth, speaking coherently. At 26 he is skillful, witty and energetic, and performs like a virtuoso." These sentences seemed to perfectly reflect the energetic - the truly virtuosic - effect Roth so effortlessly created.

The panelists may have forgotten - if they ever knew - just how dangerous these stories were 50 years ago. There was the daring sexuality of the title novella, a summer romance that in outline didn't differ much from an F. Scott Fitzgerald story of longing and social climbing via romance, but which included talk of birth-control devices that for those of us in our teens was like an adrenaline rush.

And then there was the wicked sting of Roth's satire, the quality that got Newark's Jews and most other Jewish communities across the country so exercised. Roth was denounced from countless bimahs as abetting anti-Semites in their dastardly work. Even today, all you need do is dip into these books to sense it.

Take the opening of the short story "The Conversion of the Jews":

"You're a real one for opening your mouth in the first place," Itzie said. "What do you open your mouth all the time for?"

"I didn't bring it up, Itz, I didn't," Ozzie said.

"What do you care about Jesus Christ for anyway?"

"I didn't bring up Jesus Christ. He did. I didn't even know what he was talking about. Jesus is historical, he kept saying. Jesus is historical." Ozzie mimicked the monumental voice of Rabbi Binder.

"Jesus was a person that lived like you and me," Ozzie continued. "That's what Binder said - "

"Yeah? … So what! What do I give two cents whether he lived or not. And what do you gotta open your mouth!"

Once exposed to these pulsing sentences, with their life-like cadences, there was no way I could stop reading. I can still recall the visceral effect they had upon me so many years ago. This was life, I kept repeating to myself, wondering how he was able to capture it so vividly on the page. This was how people talked. I could see these characters right in front of me.

That virtuoso kind of literary performance continued through his next three works: Letting Go, When She Was Good and Portnoy's Complaint. You could quote any of their opening passages, especially Portnoy's, which is a true classic. I have a much higher opinion of Letting Go and When She Was Good than most people. The former has intensely beautiful moments, though I do agree that it doesn't really hold together as a novel, and its Jamesian earnestness can be wearying. As for When She Was Good, it has at its center a raging, even maddening, heroine named Lucy Nelson whose ferocity - whose absolute sense of moral rightness - propels the book forward, and Roth's satiric eye is working overtime in the portrait of Lucy's sad sack husband, Roy Bassert.

Roth's virtuosity reached its apogee with Portnoy's Complaint. I remember how shocking it was to read each new installment of this wicked, hilarious work, as they appeared in New American Review and Partisan Review. It seemed truly revolutionary in its humor.

The panel discussion didn't touch on any of the danger in Portnoy. The speakers acted as if it was just one of numerous outrageous events that occurred in the 1960s. But Portnoy truly ushered in a whole other feeling that hadn't been present before. People seem to forget that the '60s, as the '60s, really didn't get started until 1968 or so, and continued in that vein till the mid-'70s. Portnoy was one of the central texts of its time, both defining and commenting on the period.

Now, masturbation as a subject in 2005 is not the same as masturbation in the late 1960s. But there's still nothing quaint about it either, no matter what the esteemed panel of experts had to say.

Roth is at his best for three-quarters of Portnoy. I was never happy with how he turned what seemed to begin as a long internal monologue, dark and mysterious, into a stand-up comedy routine done for the sake of a psychiatrist, who delivers the feeble punchline to the whole business in the novel's final moment. The novel deserved a more fitting resolution.

I stuck by Roth till this point in his career, but he lost me with Our Gang, which was inept as satire. He had to work too hard, and the sweat was obvious, something that was never true of earlier Roth performances. And The Breast was just downright bizarre and ham-fisted, a terrible miscalculation.

After that point, I read Roth every time he published something new, but the experience was not always pleasant. And yet, I never turned away because the dangerous Roth would reappear periodically - in The Professor of Desire; most especially in Sabbath's Theater; and in the mad, sad comedy of Operation Shylock.

This shouldn't be forgotten as readers make their way through the next six volumes of the definitive Roth. Try not to think of him as an eminence grise. He was an enfant terrible, first and foremost, and has somehow managed to draw on that energy from time to time as he's moved through the different phases of his career. And there's no telling when the danger may strike again.

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