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Goodbye, Philip Roth: The Passing Of A Great American Novelist

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Goodbye, Philip Roth: The Passing Of A Great American Novelist

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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 Notre Dame University 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 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.

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. Phillip 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 kikes—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 straight-jacket.

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.

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. 

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Gene Lyons

Gene Lyons is a political columnist and author. Lyons writes a column for the Arkansas Times that is nationally syndicated by United Media. He was previously a general editor at Newsweek as wells an associate editor at Texas Monthly where he won a National Magazine Award in 1980. He contributes to Salon.com and has written for such magazines as Harper's, The New York Times Magazine, The New York Review of Books, Entertainment Weekly, Washington Monthly, The Nation, Esquire, and Slate. A graduate of Rutgers University with a Ph.D. in English from the University of Virginia, Lyons taught at the Universities of Massachusetts, Arkansas and Texas before becoming a full-time writer in 1976. A native of New Jersey, Lyons has lived in Arkansas with his wife Diane since 1972. The Lyons live on a cattle farm near Houston, Ark., with a half-dozen dogs, several cats, three horses, and a growing herd of Fleckvieh Simmental cows. Lyons has written several books including The Higher Illiteracy (University of Arkansas, 1988), Widow's Web (Simon & Schuster, 1993), Fools for Scandal (Franklin Square, 1996) as well as The Hunting Of The President: The 10 Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton, which he co-authored with National Memo Editor-in-Chief Joe Conason.

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