I continue to weave through Philip Roth’s books. On my last Roth post, I said I was in the middle of “My Life as a Man”, which featured an earlier version of Roth’s continual character Nathan Zuckerman. In “My Life as a Man”, Zuckerman is a central fictional character in the writings of an author named Peter Tarnopol (who is of course as much as alter ego of Tarnopol as Tarnopol (and the future Zuckerman) is of Roth. It was as if Roth was still searching for the Nathan Zuckerman who was somewhere inside him and felt he needed one more degree of separation than he did. I did enjoy “My Life as a Man”, a very funny book about a man in a very serious and depressing predicament. As usual, Roth has an interesting structure. The first part of the book is composed of two stories about Nathan Zuckerman. The second part is about Peter Tarnopol, starting with the reactions of some of those two whom he has sent drafts of the first two stories. Poor Peter, trying to be honest and write, trapped in a terrible marriage by a woman who deceived him by buying a urine sample from a woman in a rest room so that she could fake a positive pregnancy test, and then of course there is his current beautiful, rich and a bit crazy girl friend, and of course again how can I forget his psychiatrist, who is not all Tarnopol thought (or wished) he was.
I then switched gears and went back to “Goodbye, Columbus”, Roth’s first book and one which I read in the early 1960s. Well, I will say that his book about this wealthy and sexually open Radcliffe girl had a different reaction on the 2016 retired me, than it did on the member of the Harvard class of 1964, but I still enjoyed it. It’s an interesting story about a young man from lower middle class Newark who meets the girl of his dreams, and finds out that she isn’t. The Roth character (Neil, in the book) is not yet a writer and not yet Zuckerman, but of course he is the same guy once again. “Goodbye, Columbus” is quite short, a novella, not a novel, and the book (which did win a National Book award for the then twenty something author) is completed by five short stories. None of the stories are bad, some better than others, and the best a story that takes place stateside in the army, “Defender of the Faith”, a story which I think really nails it (although what “it” is, I am not sure). “Defender of the Faith” is about a Jewish sergeant, just back from Korea, and the only three Jewish trainees under him. The other story that I remembered for 50 years had to do with an orthodox yeshiva moving into an upscale suburban neighborhood and its effect on the man selected to lead the opposition. Then there’s the young day school boy who takes the rabbi’s biblical teachings a bit too literally, the frustrated suburbanite who surprisingly finds himself in the middle of an affair with the lady across the street, and the young toughie who is sent to the suburban high school as an experiment and turns out to be…..a toughie.
Next came “American Pastoral”. This is the book that one Roth a Pulitzer Prize. Yes, Zuckerman is there, and he plays a big role, but as a narrator and chronicler, not as a an active character. The main protagonist is “Swede” (and no, he isn’t Swedish), the perfect, all-American Jewish boy, a legend at his high school, and the idolized big brother of Zuckerman’s brilliant but nerdy high school friend. Zuckerman and his friend reconnect at their 45th high school reunion, and he learns about what has happened to the Swede over the years. He did not become a professional athlete, he did not become a successful cardiologist like his brother, but rather he took over his father’s business in Newark, married a beautiful gentile woman with her own share of hangups, and was set to live the all-American suburban life. But then there was his daughter – violently opinionated, grossly independent, a left winger to the corps, who wanted to do nothing other than protest man’s stupidity and inhumanity, and to stop that damned Vietnam War. All of that may be OK to a degree, but Merry could not keep to degrees, and she went all out. Runny away to New York when she should have been in high school, bombing a local post office (killing one prominent citizen) as a means of protest, and then disappearing. For years and years. Until she turned up, living in a flop house in the most dangerous part of Newark, working under an assumed name, still involved in her leftist activities. Swede finds her and the confrontation is not pretty. He learns that she was involved in other violence – that more people have been killed. He can not save her; he can not turn her in. She is beyond redemption. He is beyond loss. It is left to Zuckerman to tell her story.
Finally, perhaps along the same lines, I read “I Married a Communist”. This time, Zuckerman starts as a Newark high school student, with a favorite English teacher, who has a brother who’s a communist. Nathan meets Ira (the teacher is Murray) when he is in high school and becomes his acolyte. His own parents seem to have little to offer him; Ira seems to have it all. But after several years, they grow apart, Nathan proceeds through his University of Chicago education and becomes a writer. The same writer, by the way, we have seen in other books. He is living, in his 50s, in his cabin in the Berkshires (just down the road, you may recall, where Lonoff lived in “The Human Stain” and others) and he hasn’t seen Ira in a long time. Does not know what happened to him – the defender of the working class who could never subordinate his need to save the world (not too different from poor Merry, perhaps) to his personal life. Suffering for this, of course, are his wives and girls, especially the beautiful secretly Jewish actress who becomes his wife and who is torn between her own needs, Ira’s needs, and those of her harp playing daughter. Three more neurotic people you will never find in one book.
How does Nathan learn about Ira’s fate? He runs into teacher Murray (just turned 90) who shows up at the small college not far from Nathan’s cabin to take a short summer course. And they spend time reminiscing about Ira. So much so that Nathan never really learns what Murray’s life has been like. But that, they agree, will await the next visit. A visit that never occurs.
Well, I’ve now read about 40 percent of Roth. Starting “Sabbath’s Theater” tonight. No idea what that’s about. But it was his second National Book Award winner.