“What is being done to silence this man?” an irate rabbi asked about Philip Roth in 1959. The young author had given tsuris to his secular and orthodox brethren with his first book, Goodbye, Columbus, a collection of stories that treated post-Holocaust American Jews like regular, flawed human beings. Tired of dodging flak, Roth said he would never write about Jews again. If he had kept that silly vow, our literature would be the poorer for it. In this instructive study of the maestro’s life and work, Claudia Roth Pierpont joins the chorus of adoring critics who have acknowledged the indispensability of his voice in chronicling this nation’s exceptional bizarreness.
Despite her middle name, Pierpont shares no DNA with Roth. But she is a friend, so look in vain for harsh indictments — even when they may be warranted. A boon of the relationship is that he opened up to her; despite his semi-reclusiveness, he gave her access to his papers and answered questions with candor and characteristic wit. Blake Bailey is scheduled to complete Roth’s official biography sometime in the next decade. Until then we have Pierpont’s finely detailed line of demarcation between fact and fiction.
It all began in Newark, of course. Roth will be forever identified with that city. Except for an overbearing father, his childhood was largely devoid of difficulty. He impressed everyone with his intelligence and good looks. Precociously talented, he won a National Book Award at age 27. He toured Europe, slept with stylish women (and a fetching French prostitute or two). The trajectory of happiness seemed unstoppable.
And then he fell under a gorgon’s spell. Or so he and Pierpont would have us believe. “The union between Philip Roth and Maggie Williams may have been the most painfully destructive and lastingly literary marriage since Scott and Zelda.” Maggie was an older, sparsely educated, Midwestern blond shiksa with two kids and an abusive past. She and Roth had nothing in common, and yet he still pursued her. When she told him she was carrying his baby, he agreed to marry her if she got rid of it. Three years of wedded misery ensued. Eventually, after a melodramatic suicide attempt, Maggie confessed to trapping him. There never was a baby. She had paid a pregnant black woman for a urine sample and went to the movies after pocketing Roth’s abortion money.
Clearly a twisted woman, but why didn’t Roth bolt when he had the chance? He blames his upbringing; this nice Jewish boy was taught to do the right thing (apparently the “right thing” included issuing a cruel ultimatum). Maggie refused to go away quietly: she refused to grant him a divorce and squeezed every penny she could out of him. The ordeal blocked his imagination. He spent years in therapy with a dubious shrink who once diagnosed Roth’s feverish symptoms as a psychosomatic response to feelings of envy (actually his appendix had burst).
But nothing is wasted in art. The therapy provided the impetus for Portnoy’s Complaint, the hilariously obscene bestseller that captured the sexual and cultural permissiveness of the 1960s and made him an uncontested fortune (luckily for him, Maggie died in a car accident a few months before it was published). At last, he was free to live and write as he pleased.
Aside from Portnoy, his fiction during the Nixon administration was not his best. Interestingly, however, Pierpont includes a transcript of a taped Oval Office conversation between the president and his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, on Roth’s satire, Our Gang, in which a character named “Trick E. Dixon” is assassinated. Roth, Haldeman concedes, “is brilliant in a sick way.” Praise from an unlikely quarter, indeed.
With The Ghost Writer, however, the near-perfect first part of his Nathan Zuckerman trilogy, Roth begins an unprecedented streak. Almost every novel in the 1980s and 1990s is garlanded: a Pulitzer, another National Book Award, two National Book Critics Circle Awards, two PEN/Faulkner Awards. Add to that a National Medal of Arts from Bill Clinton and a National Humanities Medal from Barack Obama, and the only thing left is for the members of the Swedish Academy to snap out of their snobbish anti-Americanism and vote Roth the Nobel Prize before death deems him ineligible.
Ariel Gonzalez teaches English at Miami Dade College.