Novels & Stories, 1959-1962
Library of America. 913 pp. $35
Library of America. 671 pp. $35Here we have, in two volumes encompassing nearly 1,600 pages, the first six books by Philip Roth, originally published between 1959 and 1972, the books of Roth's youth and of my own as well. I read Goodbye, Columbus & Five Short Stories soon after it won the National Book Award in 1960, labored my way through Letting Go (1962) and When She Was Good (1967), then exploded in laughter at Portnoy's Complaint (1969). Not until Our Gang (1971) and The Breast (1972) did Roth's star dim for me, as I began to sense that so much of his work is drawn from a deep well of self-absorption and indifference to the world beyond.
So the appearance of these novels and stories in two characteristically handsome Library of America volumes offered the opportunity to revisit the pleasures of youth, to see how well these books hold up more than three decades later. Re-reading them was not, I am sorry to report, a happy experience. These two volumes are the first of eight, a "definitive edition, published by special arrangement with the author." One wonders whether Roth or his representatives may have struck an all-or-nothing bargain with the editors of the Library; otherwise, it's hard to account for the decision to republish all six of the books herein collected. To be sure, those editors have placed their imprimatur on other books of dubious value -- William Faulkner's A Fable, James T. Farrell's Studs Lonigan, Carson McCullers's Clock Without Hands -- but nothing so demonstrably wretched as Letting Go, When She Was Good, Our Gang and The Breast.
In order: Letting Go is Roth's academic novel, mostly narrated by Gabe Wallach, who teaches English at a Midwestern university obviously modeled on the University of Iowa, where Roth taught at the Writers' Workshop in 1960 and developed a healthy disdain for academic pretentiousness. Apart from Gabe, the novel's focus is on a young married couple, Paul and Libby Herz, with whom he develops a strangely competitive and intimate relationship. Gabe is fixated on Libby, though heaven knows why, because she is one of the many truly despicable women to be found in Roth's fiction. The novel is endless -- some 660 pages in this edition -- and, apart from the intelligence of Roth's mind and the vigor of his prose, without redeeming quality. As a young reader, I must have responded to Gabe's frustration at living "a little life, an insignificant life," his belief that he "was not an irresponsible man," his susceptibility to "the inevitable errors of a young man," but with a few more years under my belt, I find him every bit as unattractive as Libby and am bored senseless by the novel's endless chitchat, much of it conducted at full volume.
When She Was Good is Roth's goy novel. Apparently apprehensive about being pigeonholed as a "Jewish American writer," a categorization he has always stoutly and properly resisted, he set out here to write a novel about people as unlike himself as he could imagine. The effort is honorable and even admirable, but the book is a disaster. Its prose aims for the ironic but rarely rises above the sarcastic. Lucy Bassart, the "She" of the title, is accurately described as a "little ball-breaker of a bitch," nastier even than Libby Herz. Her marriage to Roy Bassart is a disaster from the outset ("She could do whatever in the world she wanted -- even marry someone she secretly despised"), and the fault is entirely her own. There isn't a single sympathetic character in the novel -- Roy is decent but weak -- and past a certain point one is left to wonder what, exactly, Roth was trying to accomplish, beyond attempting to prove, with precious little success, that he could make his way in unfamiliar terrain.
Our Gang is a satire of Richard Nixon and his administration, written before Watergate, during a period when Nixon had taken stands not to Roth's liking on abortion and other matters. It takes its epigraphs from Jonathan Swift and George Orwell, but the only resemblance it bears to the work of these writers is that it, too, is written in English. Its level of humor is suggested by the name Roth gives to its protagonist: Trick E. Dixon. Told entirely in dialogue, it is sophomoric from start to finish and utterly without pertinence to any time except that in which it was written. If it belongs in the Library of America, then so too do scripts from "Saturday Night Live" and tapes of Lenny Bruce monologues, though any of those would be vastly funnier than Our Gang.
The Breast, barely 40 pages in length but originally published as a discrete book, is narrated by David Kepesh (this is the first of three Roth books in which he is the protagonist, the others being The Professor of Desire and The Dying Animal), a priapic academic who teaches European literature -- "Teaching Gogol and Kafka every year -- teaching 'the Nose' and 'Metamorphosis' " -- and who himself metamorphoses into a female breast. The novella is meant to be a reflection -- albeit a decidedly profane one -- on life and literature and the ways they intersect. It is also meant to be a comedy. It succeeds as neither. It has none of the psychological depth and complexity of Gogol or Kafka, and its comedy mainly consists of obscenities.
The good news? Goodbye, Columbus and the five stories that filled out Roth's first book -- "The Conversion of the Jews," "Defender of the Faith," "Epstein," "You Can't Tell a Man by the Song He Sings" and "Eli, the Fanatic" -- remain keen and unexpectedly fresh, considering that the surprise has long since worn away. At the time they first appeared, the Jewish presence in American literature was still comparatively small and tended to take a sympathetic, mythic approach that was informed by the deep identification with Jews who had been lost in the Holocaust. Roth stepped onto the stage all sass and irreverence, sparing no one, especially the wealthy, upwardly mobile Patimkin family in Goodbye, Columbus, whose perfect daughter, Brenda, has an affair with the narrator, Neil Klugman, who comes from entirely the wrong part of Newark, the city with which Roth himself has had a lifelong love/hate affair.
Goodbye, Columbus made Roth a great many enemies among American Jews, who were protective of the place they were gradually winning for themselves in mainstream American society and were deeply uncomfortable at being held up to ridicule. That was nothing, though, compared to the damage done by Portnoy's Complaint, which isn't so much a novel (it has nothing approximating a plot) as a rant, a fierce nightclub shtick by a Lenny Bruce clone, told in the form of confessions on a psychiatrist's couch. I remember vividly the book's appearance and the astonishing effect that Alexander Portnoy's masturbatory eruptions immediately had on American readers. To the best of my knowledge, the phrase "over the top" had not yet entered the language, at least not in its present usage, but Portnoy was over the top in every way: hilarious, furious, obscene. Here's a quick sample, when Alex is visiting a goy household:
"Tacked above the Girardi sink is a picture of Jesus Christ floating up to Heaven in a pink nightgown. How disgusting can human beings be! The Jews I despise for their narrow-mindedness, their self-righteousness, the incredible bizarre sense that these cave men who are my parents and relatives have somehow gotten of their superiority -- but when it comes to tawdriness and cheapness, to beliefs that would shame even a gorilla, you simply cannot top the goyim. What kind of base and brainless schmucks are these people to worship somebody who, number one, never existed, and number two, if he did, looking as he does in that picture, was without a doubt The Pansy of Palestine. In a pageboy haircut, with a Palmolive complexion -- and wearing a gown that I realize today must have come from Fredericks of Hollywood!"
Wonderful stuff. It's lost a good deal of its pop today thanks to its familiarity, but it was a watershed in American literature and deserves to be in a series of books "dedicated to preserving America's best and most significant writing." But Our Gang? The Breast? Eight volumes of Roth when Faulkner gets only four, Nabokov three, Wharton four, Twain six? That's nuts. *
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.