Philip Roth (1933-2018)
I was thinking of a Philip Roth line yesterday morning before I heard the news of his death yesterday evening at the age of 85. It's a line from “The Ghost Writer,” my favorite of his novels, about a young Nathan Zuckerman visiting his idol, E.I. Lonoff, who is a combination of Malamud, Bellow, Salinger and probably other Jewish authors I'm unaware of, in the Berkshires—“that is to say,” Zuckerman adds, “in the goyish wilderness of birds and trees where America began and long ago had ended.”
But that's not the line. This is the line:
To get it wrong so many times.
It's Lonoff's line. He's an exacting presence, a meticulous writer and personality who often goes through 20-30 drafts of a short story before it's considered done. When he's complimented on this, by Zuckerman, he says the above. I‘ve quoted it before. Here, for example. I can’t remember why I thought it yesterday. Probably work related. But I think of Lonoff a lot. He read with a pen in hand to mark passages, and I began to do the same. I still do it when I'm not on a Kindle. Like Lonoff, I have trouble concentrating otherwise.
I urge “The Ghost Writer” on you as I‘ve urged it on, and given it to, countless friends over the years. I think it’s about as perfect as a novel can be. It reminds me of “Gatsby” or “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” or “Breakfast at Tiffany‘s” in that way. All of these books are eminently accessible, fun and profound. They stick with you. They’re deep in my bones.
That was my first Roth, wasn't it? It was the summer of 1981, we were on the eastern shore, at Rehoboth Beach, Del., and I'd been reading a lot of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. I think my father was finally curious about Vonnegut, picked him up, thought “Not bad, but ... ” When I objected to the “but,” he suggested I read some Roth. I was used to Vonnegut's short sentences and Roth gave me this at the opening of “The Ghost Writer”:
It was the last daylight hour of a December afternoon more than twenty years ago—I was twenty-three, writing and publishing my first short stories, and like many a Bildungsroman hero before me, already contemplating my own massive Bildungsroman—when I arrived at his hideaway to meet the great man. The clapboard farmhouse was at the end of an unpaved road twelve hundred feet up in the Berkshires, yet the figure who emerged from the study to bestow a ceremonious greeting wore a gabardine suit, a knitted blue tie clipped to a white shirt by an unadorned silver clasp, and well-brushed ministerial black shoes that made me think of him stepping down from a shoeshine stand rather than from the high altar of art.
It would be easier to name the Roth books I haven't read than the ones I have. I didn't read him much this century, so I haven't touched “Everyman,” “The Humbling,” “Nemesis.” I failed to pick up “The Dying Animal” and “Exit Ghost.” Back in the day, I didn't make it through “Operation Shylock.” “Shop Talk,” no. The other 25 books, yes.
In pre-social media days, I was part of a group of friends that met in a private online chatroom to talk about the world, and within it, by its ringleader, I was given the nom de plume Zuckerman, after Nathan, Roth's alter ego. The ringleader and I had known each other since the 1980s, and I guess I spoke a lot about Roth then. Or it could be that my early work was very much Roth-influenced: that super-articulate howl, that beating your head against the wall, that catch between being the good boy and living the good life.
How much yiddish do I know because of Roth? He was my entree there. (He and Woody Allen and the Marx Brothers.) “Gonif,” certainly. That's “Goodbye, Columbus.” It's a scene between Roth's alter-ego, Neil, and Mr. Patimkin, the father of Neil's girlfriend, Brenda, two-thirds of the way through the novella:
“Here [in business] you need a little of the gonif in you. You know what that means? Gonif?”
“Thief,” I said.
“You know more than my own kids. They‘re goyim, my kids, that’s how much they understand.”
That's such great dialogue. All that doesn't need to be said. Patimkin is the mercenary business Jew, the man who raised himself by his bootstraps, and made his children taller, more beautiful, but ultimately softer than he was. He made them goyim. That unspoken sigh of resignation when Neil knows what his kids don‘t. There’s so much of America captured in this little back and forth.
That's the thing I missed when Roth went on his spree of Great American novels in the 1990s. I reviewed most of them for The Seattle Times—I was considered their Roth expert—but gave them middling reviews. They won national book awards and I was disappointed. The themes were amazing, it was America through the American century, but by then Roth had moved past dialogue (and his trademark brilliant sense of humor) and into monologue, which was often humorless. He traded dialogue for diatribe. I missed his back-and-forths. I wanted Alvin Pepler on the scene.
I still feel guilty about those reviews. I want to return to those books to see what I missed.
In the middle of the Trump era is no time to die for someone like Roth. The man who skewered Nixon and his men in “Our Gang” in the early 1970s dismissed Trump in a paragraph just last January:
I found much that was alarming about being a citizen during the tenures of Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. But, whatever I may have seen as their limitations of character or intellect, neither was anything like as humanly impoverished as Trump is: ignorant of government, of history, of science, of philosophy, of art, incapable of expressing or recognizing subtlety or nuance, destitute of all decency, and wielding a vocabulary of seventy-seven words that is better called Jerkish than English.
He was in retirement by then but maybe shouldn't have been. I could‘ve used an essay, or a book, on the above. His novel, “The Plot Against America,” imagined a fascistic U.S. in the 1940s with a Pres. Lindbergh in charge, and Jews rounded up and taken into those goyish woods, and for that Roth was considered prescient. He dismmised it. Lindbergh was a hero, he said. “Trump, by comparison, is a massive fraud, the evil sum of his deficiencies, devoid of everything but the hollow ideology of a megalomaniac.” The unstated is that 21st-century America can’t even do fascism right. We voted for a strutting clown, a pompous ass. During the 2016 campaign, I could never understand why more people didn't see through Trump, and why it was so easy for me to do so. Maybe because I saw him partly through Philip Roth's eyes.
He was the starting right-fielder of my literary nine. When Gore Vidal died I wrote “Doctorow and Roth live” and when Doctorow died I said “Now just Roth.” And now, not. Goodbye, Columbus. Goodbye, Columbus. Goodbye.