Philip Roth

A long (fictional) trail of tears.

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Roth insists that he is an American writer, period (in much the same ways that Bernard Malamud and Saul Bellow did before him), but when early in his career he wrote a novel (When She Was Good, 1963) populated exclusively by non-Jews, it was a non-starter.

For good or ill, Roth needs Jews and kosher-style Jewish material to get his juices flowing.

What Portnoy Wrought

Though laughter-through-tears was the hallmark of Yiddish humor, many in the Jewish community were disgusted with the laughter and unmoved by the tears of Roth's most famous and infamous character, Alexander Portnoy.

Portnoy's Complaint (l969) is Alexander's unrelenting monologue, delivered to his therapist, about his sexual appetites and adventures. Portnoy wants, above all else, "to be bad and still feel good."

The late Irving Howe, a distinguished literary critic, once accused Roth of coming from a "thin personal culture," and it is true that Roth peppers Portnoy's Complaint with the more immediate--and for him, more accessible--material of popular culture. This was not only ethnic foodstuffs from the Portnoy dinner table and baseball games in the street but also the sexual boasts-cum-shameless confessions that were becoming the anthem of the morally liberated l960s.

Nathan Zuckerman

Nathan Zuckerman has been an abiding presence in Roth's pantheon since he first sought out the writer E.I. Lonoff (loosely modeled on Bernard Malamud) for aid, comfort, and most of all, artistic approval in The Ghost Writer (1979).

Zuckerman, like Roth and the fictional Lonoff, is a writer, and his novel Carnovsky--a book meant to remind us of the dust that Portnoy's Complaint kicked up--made him rich, famous, and reviled.

The next round of Zuckerman novels--Zuckerman Unbound (1981), The Anatomy Lesson (1983), and The Prague Orgy (1985)--were consumed with proving that the author of Carnovsky was a man more sinned against than sinning.

Postmodern Experimentation

To a large extent, this whining didn't work, and it was only when Roth became a postmodernist storyteller that his full powers were unleashed. Roth became as playfully serious as he was seriously playful.

His work took a meta-fictional turn, often with mixed results. The Counterlife (1986), in which a character dies in one chapter only to reappear several chapters later, was brilliant; Deception (1990), by contrast, was all smoke-and-mirrors. Moreover, the "Judea" section of The Counterlife and the narrative twists-and-turns of Operation Shylock (1993) remain among the most insightful treatments of Middle Eastern turmoil.

After his long absorption with Nathan Zuckerman's complaining, Roth wrote two extraordinary novels which feature Zuckerman, but don't focus on him: American Pastoral (1997) and The Human Stain (2000), the first about a "good man" brought down by the chaos of the 1960s and his radical daughter; and the latter about a black man who tries to pass as a white professor.

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Sanford Pinsker is an emeritus professor of English at Franklin and Marshall College. He writes widely about Jewish literature and culture, and in recent years has been a judge for the Edward Lewis Wallant Prize, the Reform Judaism Prize, and the National Jewish Book Award.