Philip Roth was not a writer. Fiction was not his profession. Storytelling was not his daily existence. For six decades Roth was devoted to all three as a way of life. In his sixties he was writing novels with the energy of a twenty-something wunderkind. In that decade alone he won every major American award for letters. Roth leaves behind a body of work encompassing fiction, non-fiction, essays, criticism and other writings that without hyperbole charts the coming of age of postwar America, unleashes a wickedly scathing eye on the “piety binge” of the Clinton years, sheds startling light on the coming of Donald Trump and moves on to profound reflections on the inevitability of death.
For his 80th birthday in 2013, his hometown of Newark, New Jersey feted him with a celebration of his life and work, returning the courtesy for the homage Roth paid to the town in his stories and novels. He was born there on March 19, 1933 to Bess and Herman Roth, second-generation Americans who traced their lineage to Ukraine, Galicia and Kiev. But even as a third-generation American, Roth, early in his career, faced America’s mystifying need to hyphenate the non-WASP other.
“If I’m not American, I’m nothing,” Philip Roth once said when asked how he felt about being labeled a “Jewish-American” writer. By the time the 1990s arrived, and Roth had delivered his trilogy of novels – American Pastoral, I Married A Communist, and The Human Stain – he was one of the undisputed masters of American fiction, a quintessential American writer. His four-decade career at that point had been a journey of controversy and confrontation, for Roth liked nothing better than to be confrontational in his works.
In the trilogy Roth went head-to-head with some of his country’s most contentious issues and times. American Pastoral tells the story of Seymour “Swede” Levov, a successful Jewish-American business owner, former baseball star, one-time neighborhood legend and family man whose life is torn asunder as America is shaken by the political upheavals of the Lyndon Johnson era of the 1960s. The Communist witch-hunts of Senator Joe McCarthy set the background for I Married a Communist. In The Human Stain, Roth creates a tour de force that eviscerates America’s “purity binge” in the aftermath of the Clinton-Lewinsky affair as Coleman Silk, a mild-mannered septuagenarian professor of classics in a small New England college, is fired after charges of racism and finds solace in his love for a woman half his age. Any writer worth their craft would worship at the altar of the Muses at being able to produce these three works alone, in the short span of a decade, let alone find the endurance for them in their sixties.
The National Book Award for his first book Goodbye Columbus and Five Short Stories in 1960 was an accolade of the past, faded glory compared to the vigor with which he wrote and through his novels tackled America in the final decade of the 20th century and the beginning of the post-9/11 21st.
In 2004, The Plot Against America was published. More than a decade would pass before its relevance seemed prophetic. A counterfactual based on the election of Charles Lindbergh as the president of the United States following a campaign fueled with Anti-Semitism and fear, Plot received a second life as the election of POTUS 45 went from punch line to reality.
In Roth’s fictional account of a president driven by bigotry, Lindbergh blames the Jews for selfishly pushing America into a war with Nazi Germany, makes a cordial “understanding” with Hitler, and has no overt reservations about Hitler’s virulent Anti-Semitic policies. The novel’s premise seemed eerily close to the rise of Donald Trump on a platform that included bigotry in a multitude of shades and anti-Muslim rhetoric.
It was fiction, however, that was Roth’s singular sleight of hand. Through fiction he tramped through his country’s unending quandaries, dressing facts as re-imagined events and questioning reality with narratives purely spun from imagination. Roth created experimental worlds within his fiction where desire, morality, sex, marriage, love, family, and politics, history and even religion were locked in perpetual disquiet.
Through fiction Roth lived myriad lives. The frequently recurring novelist and writer Nathan Zukerman bore witness to some of Roth’s most glaring portraits of America and Americans. Alex Portnoy, David Kepesh, Peter Tarnopol, and Mickey Sabbath were among Roth’s other proxies. Roth was that writer whose fiction had readers constantly wondering if every line he wrote had biographical details couched in it or whether it was indeed all made up. Roth kept them/us perpetually befuddled with the first-person "I" narrator’s voice. Roth was a pugilist with language. His sentences, whether in narration or as dialogue, could jump off the page with frantic energy and batter the senses.
The Nobel Prize eluded him. Year after year he was a contender, until he “retired” from writing fiction in 2012. He said he had done enough. Everything that could be done with fiction, he had done. If it was meant in any part to be a statement to the Nobel committee and their continued slight, it is a matter of conjecture. Roth wrote until he reached a point where he felt he had nothing more or new to offer to the form and the genre that had been his lifelong bedfellow. It was time to let it rest alone and for them to part. If a Nobel was not waiting at the end of the line, then so be it.
Perhaps he took that heartbreak with him to the grave. Maybe he really did not care.
The stories had been told, the cases made, the words set down. Not many writers can make even one of those claims, and it is not outrageous to think there are writers who would quake with fear at the thought of not having anything left to say. And then to admit it and walk away from the desk one last time.
Nadeem Zaman is a Bangladeshi-born American fiction writer. His debut novel, In the Time of the Others, is forthcoming from Picador.