Letting Go of Philip Roth

Thoughts On the Retirement Of the Genius Who Immortalized My New Jersey World

I grew up surrounded by Rothschilds (the judge and his wife), Roths (owners of a chain of urban sneaker stores, they made a fortune off many iterations of Air Jordans), Rothmans (an optometrist and a field hockey teammate), and Rothbarts (best known for the wife’s affair with the new cantor at our temple). My last name felt about as not-special to me as the upper-middle-class Northern New Jersey suburbs where my parents were born and raised and where they were raising my brother and me. Our leafy street and its two-car garages and two-parent homes—smaller than those of some of my friends, larger than those of others—felt average. My dad, like many of my friends’ dads, spent weekend mornings golfing at our country club, where I learned to play tennis and swim.

I wasn’t so sheltered that I didn’t know I was lucky to take tennis lessons and swim in an Olympic-sized pool and to have the chance to go into The City (New York, about 30 miles to the northeast) every so often to see a show. And while I knew that Jews only made up a small fraction of the population of the country and the world, there was nothing interesting about the fact that they made up about three-quarters of the people in my world.

Which is why I was so astounded to read Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus, the story of a summer romance between a working-class Jewish boy from Newark (home to my grandfather’s firm, in which my dad still practices law) and an upper-middle-class Jewish girl from Short Hills. I was probably 11 or 12 when I read Roth’s 1959 novella for the first time, along with the accompanying short stories (my favorite being “The Conversion of the Jews,” which was set in a Hebrew school that shared some similarities to my own and doubtless every other Hebrew school in America). I was a voracious reader, but I had never before seen my name (well, half of it) on a book jacket, nor had I ever seen the names of towns I recognized between a book’s covers. But more incredible than my own thrill of recognition was the thrill that people—not just Jews in New Jersey, but people around the country and the world—were interested in this story. And this story could have been, if not my story, than the story of a grandparent or parent or aunt or uncle of mine.

My discovery of Roth, in the 1990s, coincided with his magnificent late-career resurgence. First I read backward (The Ghost Writer, Portnoy’s Complaint), and then I read forward: The Human Stain and The Plot Against America as soon as they came out. For years, my favorite book was American Pastoral (set in a thinly disguised version of Morristown, an older and waspier neighboring town). On a day-to-day basis, my mom’s neuroses were a source of annoyance (does the discovery of a $5-off coupon really merit a second trip to the mall in a single day?), my family’s ambivalence about our Jewishness a source of joking (my grandfather always made reservations at the fanciest restaurants in New York on Yom Kippur because you got better service when there were fewer customers), and the tensions between the more and less observant factions of our family a source of argument. But with Roth as my prism, these peccadillos could have pathos and weight and meaning, not just for me but for people outside my family circle.

My affection for Roth held steady through college despite learning that some people considered him a misogynist and a self-hating Jew—and despite realizing that not all his books were created equal (his baseball book, The Great American Novel, is a classic case of overpromising and underperforming). When it came time to write my senior thesis, the first adviser I approached—who had taught my late-20th-century American literature survey course on Roth, John Updike, Saul Bellow, and Norman Mailer (a decidedly narrow survey)—declined to work with me. “I’ve shot my load on Roth,” he explained. But I found another professor who still had something left in the tank, and I spent a year reading and rereading Roth’s Zuckerman novels for a project I wanted to title “Rothbard on Roth.” (I settled instead for something much more academic, boring, and appropriate, but I got to use the title in the preface.)

Immediately after graduating, I entered the world of New York book publishing. Roth had long since retreated into near-isolation in Connecticut, so while I dreamed of running into him at a book party, I settled instead for his editor (it turned out she’d gone to high school with my aunt; I doubted she edited him much anyway) and his publicist’s assistant (I cornered the guy at a Christmas party and demanded to know if the rumors about a young girlfriend were true). I loved that I could in turn tell them the story of the literature class my dad took at the University of Pennsylvania with Roth just after Portnoy’s Complaint came out; on the first day of class, Roth slapped a piece of liver on his desk.

Every year, I’ve rooted for Roth to win the Nobel Prize and felt just a little bit crushed by the announcement that it’s gone to yet another novelist I’ve never heard of. In 2005, I delighted in his proclamation, upon the installation of a plaque by his boyhood home, that “Newark is my Stockholm.”

In 2006, Roth published Everyman, a slim, dark story about a man dying alone and full of regret. It’s the last book of his that I loved, but my mother’s father, then in his mid-80s, loved it more. For a few months, it seemed like he could talk about nothing other than Roth’s grim, cold vision of death, never mind that my grandfather was in excellent health at the time.

When I heard the news that Roth had given up writing and announced his retirement (in a French magazine; how delightfully contrarian!), I didn’t feel mournful for myself, although I hoped he might have one last big book left in him. While it may sound silly, I felt worried for my grandfather. He’s 81 years old, and he’s got a broken ankle (courtesy of a golf cart accident at the club this summer) as well as a broken heart. He hasn’t been able to get through a book since my grandmother died in May. I don’t think he’d tell you he was looking forward to reading Roth’s next book; it’s unlikely that he even bothered with Roth’s past few books (I haven’t, either, frankly). But a new book by Roth could make us all feel special for a little while. Like our stories weren’t over—and might be worth reading.


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