How to Write Like Your Parents Are Dead.

AuthorCortellessa, Eric
PositionBlake Bailey's "Philip Roth: The Biography"

Philip Roth: The Biography

by Blake Bailey

W.W. Norton, 916 pp.

Philip Roth had an idyllic childhood. How did he become America's greatest chronicler of malcontents?

In 1969, Philip Roth summoned his parents for lunch in New York City. His novel, Portnoy's Complaint, was soon to hit bookshelves, and he wanted to prepare them for what he predicted would be an onslaught of controversy and media attention. "You can politely or un-politely hang up," he said. "They're just journalists, you know." Roth had reason to be worried. He had already been labeled an anti-Semite because his earlier work contained unflattering Jewish American characters. Portnoy was likely to further fuel those charges and was bound to come with another dimension: Readers would unquestionably wonder whether Alexander Portnoy's domineering and deranged parents were based on the writer's own.

After lunch, Roth sent his parents back home to New Jersey. Once the taxi left, his mother began to cry. "What's wrong?" Philip's father, Herman, asked her. "He has delusions of grandeur!" she told him.

Of course, Roth's delusions turned out to be justified. The raunchy and emancipating novel about a guilt-stricken Jewish man's obsession with sex and masturbation, told in the form of a rant to his psychotherapist, was an immediate best seller and a cultural landmark. Practically overnight, it made Roth into an international celebrity who could no longer dine in restaurants without someone heckling him over whether he was going to order liver (in the most infamous scene, Portnoy masturbates with a piece his family will eat for dinner).

Twenty-five books later--Roth wrote a total of 31--it remains the one for which he is probably best known.

In reality, Herman and Bess Roth were a devoted and doting set of parents who bore only mild resemblances to Jack and Sophie Portnoy, and Roth's childhood was very unlike Alexander's. Roth enjoyed an idyllic upbringing in the Weequahic section of Newark, New Jersey, where he suffered no significant trauma.

Still, readers were right to wonder. As Blake Bailey observes in Philip Roth, his new, eagerly anticipated, and magisterial biography of the American master, Roth loved to play on the ambiguity. "The most cunning form of disguise," Roth wrote in The Facts, "is to wear a mask that bears the image of one's own face." Many of his protagonists had similarities to the author (some were even named Philip Roth). The author's rejection of Judaism ("I don't have a religious bone in my body") and his adventurous sex life (he was never quite a one-woman man) served as fodder for many of his greatest works, and when not writing about himself, Roth almost always drew on people he knew. He would bring a notebook with him at all times and take notes on what he picked up from interactions with acquaintances. The habit was so pervasive that a lawyer would have to pore through his final drafts to make sure no one could sue him for libel.

Roth's early depictions of radical individualism made him an astute chronicler of the ethos of the 1950s and '60s, when young people across the country were railing against authority and the strictures of their parents' generation. His most pervasive theme was the struggle of the individual against the communal (the I versus the we)--and he always sided with the individual.

But his rebellious characters, like Portnoy, were flawed and--more than occasionally--a tad perverted. So, too, ultimately, was the individualistic uprising he channeled. By the 1980s, individual rebellion against social authority had morphed into economic libertarianism, which led to the rise of Ronald Reagan and a conservative...

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