The Enduring Greatness of Phillip Roth
A month or so ago, a dinner conversation turned to which authors were going to be the enduring writers of our generation. Who lived while we have lived? Who’s literature will outlive us?
It’s a tough list to build.
But here’s an obvious one: Phillip Roth.
Roth was one of the first that comes to mind. In fact, I honestly don’t know if there is another author I have read more of…I mean, have I really read more than 6-7 books of one incredible author? Nope, not Hemingway even. Conroy? Nope.
There’s Goodbye Columbus. Portnoy’s Complaint. Sabbath Theater. The Human Stain. American Pastoral. More, I am sure, more Phillip Roth I have read.
Roth just won the 2011 Man Booker International Prize a month or so ago. Hurray for him, I thought.
It’s like that lifetime achievement award at the Oscars–the film clip is sure to bring a smile. But his award also prompted me to rummage through an overflowing bookcase to find Nemesis, his most recent novel. I can’t recall reading a review and I think my mom passed it along at some point…but I didn’t care. It just sparked the instantaneous desire to read it.
Ooh ooh ooh. A good find. Phillip Roth has still got it, people.
No doubt, Roth will not win any awards for his upbeat themes….but it was a great, tasty book. It’s complex, but elegant and not intimidating. It’s rich and descriptive, but not exhausting. It’s intellectually engaging. It reads quickly.
And the story is beautifully intertwined. Bucky Conroy is 23 years old. In 1944, he is one of the few men of his age who isn’t serving America in the second world war–on account of bad vision. Instead, he’s a playground director in a jewish neighborhood in New Jersey. Where soon enough–irony is intentional!–he’ll be fighting his own battle as polio wages a war against the children who play ball on his fields. “Because this was a real war too, a war of slaughter, ruin, waste and damnation, war with the ravages of war–war upon the children of Newark.”
This conflict takes its toll on Bucky. For the obvious reasons of watching premature death and disability, but also because Bucky is fighting his own private war. He is guilty because his own friends are off fighting and he is not, and he is battling prejudice in his neighborhood as neighbors blame the Italians, the homeless derelicts, the guy who runs the hot dog shops and ultimately, the Jews –for bringing this polio to the unassuming masses. Fear reigns. Both in the neighborhood and in Bucky’s heart–as he contemplates if he will get to see his fiancée who is in the cool reaches of the Poconos mountains, safely ensconced as a camp counselor.
See her he does, by fleeing the city of Newark, quitting his job and taking a plush job as waterfront director at the summer camp where Marcia works. He quenches his fear but unleashes a guilt that’s unmanageable. Angst is Bucky’s M.O. and Roth deals with this in an expert manner, creating a tension in the second half of the book that only an idiot could miss that bad luck is on the horizon.
And bad luck, or ‘circumstance’ is what Roth plays on in this book. Miss the war, hit the polio epidemic. Leave the polio epidemic, find the ______. Well, you’ll have to read it to find out. But Roth says: “Sometimes you’re lucky and sometimes you’re not. Any biography is chance, and, beginning at conception, chance–the tyranny of contingency–is everything.”
If you are looking for lighter than air for your summer reading, Roth isn’t likely your Man of the Year. But Nemesis is beautifully written. You feel the extreme fever, the brutal sun and blistering heat of Newark in a way you can touch in the first half of the novel–only to be showered my mountain rivers and cool evenings and crisp starry nights in the mountains in the second half. Roth carries you along. You want to hear Bucky’s biography, even if the angst persists and Phillip Roth refuses to tie it up with a nice neat bow.
78 years old.
He’s worth a second, third, fourth, fifth dip.
Cuz this guy has staying power.
P.S. If you haven’t read Nemesis or even Phillip Roth…answer me this…what authors living today will have literature that outlasts us? Who has and will endure?
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