When He Was Good: A Remembrance of Philip Roth

He was prolific but never prosaic. He was rhapsodic but never routine. He was also outrageous but (almost) never obscene; because, in this mixture of metaphors and spirits, in this literary act of transubstantiation, whereby he converted not wine into the blood of Christ but chocolate syrup, seltzer, and milk into the lifeblood of American culture, he gave us a helluva egg cream. He gave us baseball, books, and broads. He gave us America writ small, written with maximalist style and sensuality. He was one of our greatest postwar novelists. He was Philip Roth.

He was neither entirely factual, nor exclusively fictional, in his works; having created, instead, a facsimile of his childhood neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey, to further his stories about conflicts minor and major, from warring fathers and sons to men fighting—and dying—in wars between North and South Korea, and Hanoi and Saigon. He was an assimilationist who mined his life, including his transition from the Newark branch of Rutgers University to his arrival at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, where the ivy was no more or less poisonous for its time and place. If there was a hint of campus anti-Semitism, and there was, it was more snobbish than sulphuric.

Everything was of a piece: a surplus of contradictions set against smiling collegians and seemingly collegial chaplains and college presidents. It was a mélange of anti-communism and anti-intellectualism, dressed in tweed and cordovan, and blessed with the banality of conformist rhetoric. It was a menace to Roth’s sensibilities, because he despised tyranny and detested the manipulation of the Red Menace.

He was an American, whose art trumped politics, though his characters were not above the grease of the ward, the grime of the clubhouse, and the graft of the city councilman. He sprinkled his world with the realism of the soot—and the mark of the human stain—that belies the purity of the kosher butcher’s apron and the priest’s collar. He was as flawed as anyone, but he was no Everyman.

He was a giant. R.I.P.

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