I can’t count the number of Philip Roth books I’ve read in my lifetime, beginning with Portnoy’s Complaint when I was 14. The Zuckerman Trilogy, 1979 through ’83 (which eventually turned out to be a quartet) was one of the driving forces behind my dream of becoming a writer. He, Norman Mailer, Fran Lebowitz, and Bill James, altogether, were initially responsible for me terrorizing the world with my wordsmithing all these years. But Roth was the first among those equals.
As I grew into middle-age-hood my infatuation with Roth largely wore off. I got sick of all his academic-world protagonists standing on their heads to get laid even as they entered their Viagra years. The fact that college professors got tumescent was a giggly, almost revolutionary development in the literary world in the late 1960s and into the ’70s. By the time the ’90s rolled around, the idea that a novelist or tenured prof was chasing all the young coeds the eye could see had become a big yawn.
Oh, and all those women who were so comely, such priapic prizes, turned out to be uniformly neurotic verging on dangerously psychotic. Or at the very least they were lying, cheating harpies. It got to the point that any new Roth novel was less a work of fiction than either a confession or a daydream, better left revealed to a nodding psychoanalyst.
The Plot Against America was different. In a way, it was almost prescient even though it was a period piece. I violated my Roth embargo to read that one, and it was well worth it.
Otherwise, I stopped reading Roth well before he released American Pastoral. I’m told it’s one of the greatest American novels of the second half of the 20th Century. Maybe I’ll pick it up now that Roth is dead. He cashed it in yesterday. I’m not saying I’ll rush right out to get American Pastoral. I still feel awfully gun shy about the world(s) Roth creates.
His own world — the real one — was no less unattractive than his imaginary ones. His second wife, the actress Claire Bloom, in her memoir Leaving a Doll’s House, described him as a terribly cruel, even vicious husband. As with Woody Allen, it’s difficult to separate the actual human from the artist when the human is an animal.
In any case, whether I read American Pastoral or not, I’m thankful for his early work, the stuff that made me fall in love with writing. I’m even more thankful I’m not a woman in his worlds, either real or imagined.