Finding lost Philip Roth in a Provincetown used bookstore
My favorite used bookstore in America is on Commercial Street in Provincetown, Mass., in a back house, down a narrow lane. It’s called Tim’s, and I make a pilgrimage there every summer because it is everything a used bookstore should be: close and packed with shelves that extend through four rooms, and that slightly stale smell of aging paper, a smell I’ve loved since I was a kid.
Tim’s, in fact, reminds me of the used bookstores I used to go to, filled with not only the same titles but even the very editions with which I once stocked my shelves. Simply to walk into the store is like entering a time warp, as I pick through old Vintage paperbacks of Camus and Sartre, Pocket Books editions of Joan Didion and those mass-market Bantams of the 1970s, with their impressionistic covers, as if every book had been written by Hermann Hesse.
This year, I stumbled onto a treasure trove at Tim’s … or a treasure trove for someone such as me. Someone had unloaded several issues of New American Review — a literary journal, edited by Ted Solotaroff, and published in paperback, first by Signet and eventually by Bantam, from 1967 to 1977. New American Review was a great magazine, publishing many of the leading writers of its era (Leonard Michaels, Russell Banks, R.V. Cassill, William Gass), and I’ve got a complete run, all 26 issues, tucked into a storage space in New York.
And yet, that’s the thing about used bookstores, isn’t it? We (or, at least, I) want to buy everything all over again. It had been years since I’d thought about New American Review, but suddenly, there it was, and I was irresistibly drawn.
This was the journal in which I first discovered E.L. Doctorow (he previewed “Ragtime” in its pages) and Robert Coover, whose novella “Whatever Happened to Gloomy Gus of the Chicago Bears?” had been a cover piece. New American Review published work like that: long, not quite categorizable, writing that would have been hard-pressed to find a home for itself anyplace else.
One such piece was Philip Roth’s 40-plus-page story, “On the Air,” the centerpiece of Issue 10, published in August 1970, which I bought for a dollar and a quarter at Tim’s. Discursive, digressive, both rambling and pointed, it is a quintessential New American Review story: an oddity that reverberates.
Roth, after all, has never been much of a short story writer; besides the five that fill out his first book, “Goodbye, Columbus,” he has published only a handful in the last 50 years. “On the Air” dates from the period after “Portnoy’s Complaint,” when he was casting about for a form, a voice; his books from this era — “Our Gang,” “The Breast” and “The Great American Novel” — are among his most ribald and absurd.
“On the Air” shares much of their aesthetic: Broadly satiric, it takes place in the 1950s and revolves around a low-rent talent agent named Lippman who wants to recruit Albert Einstein as the star of a syndicated quiz show.
For much of the story, Roth appears to be riffing, comparing Einstein to the great Jewish comics (“Your hair is a great gimmick. … Without disrespect, it sticks in your mind the way Harpo Marx’s does”), then working his way through a series of set pieces (a scene in a bowling alley, a confrontation with a crazed local police chief) that spin increasingly out of control.
We’ve come to see Roth as a central figure in the American-Jewish tradition, a writer who traffics in issues of assimilation and identity and the clash of generations, the irresolvable tension between the old world and the new. Here, though (as in his other work from this time), he reveals his sympathies as more in line with what we might think of as a counter-lineage: that of Kafka, of Delmore Schwartz and Nathanael West, whose first novel “The Dream Life of Balso Snell” must have been an influence on “On the Air.”
Like Balso, Lippman finds himself drawn increasingly into a hall of mirrors, where reality — or ordinary everyday reality, at any rate — is not his concern. The stakes are different, or inverted; he no longer recognizes what he sees. And yet, this doesn’t mean that they don’t have weight.
When Roth asks, at the end of the story, “Is it even remotely possible that Einstein is a missing Marx Brother?” he is commenting not only on the absurdity of the situation he has created but also the absurdity of everything. As in “Our Gang” — in which a depraved president named Trick E. Dixon contrives a war with Denmark as part of a campaign to give the unborn the vote — he is using extremism to point out our own cultural extremes. “Why are ugly people put on earth,” he wonders, “if not to make us laugh? But then why don’t the Germans fall down in the streets laughing at that raving maniac instead of saluting him?”
This is the signal moment of the story, the instant that it all falls into place. How can we laugh, Roth is wondering, in a world that produced Hitler? But then again, how can we not?
“On the Air” is not entirely successful; there’s a reason Roth has never collected it in any of his books. And yet, in its willingness to push the boundaries — of propriety, of form, even of narrative — it’s a reminder of what, at its best, New American Review had to offer: a place where a writer could surprise him or herself.
Love a good book?
Get the latest news, events and more from the Los Angeles Times Book Club, and help us get L.A. reading and talking.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.