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Philip Roth a bard of the unbridled libido, but also a writer whose passing brings tears

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President Barack Obama presents the National Humanities Medal to Philip Roth in 2011.
(Jim Watson / AFP/Getty Images)

Paul Simon was about to take the stage Tuesday night at the Hollywood Bowl when my 26-year-old daughter looked up from her phone: “Philip Roth died.”

The news stunned me. Roth was 85, but in a recent interview with the New York Times, he was as intellectually nimble as ever and there was no reference to failing health. The house lights dimmed, Simon strolled onstage and launched into “America.” By the time he was counting the cars on the New Jersey turnpike (Roth attended Weequahic High School in Newark), I was weeping.

There are writers whose work I admire, even love, but few whose passing would elicit tears. It’s actually never happened before. Yes, this was the 76-year old Simon’s farewell tour, with all the attendant sentimental implications of endings that go with it, and that had me in a particularly defenseless state. But Roth is the contemporary American writer whose work is most important to me, so make of my tears what you will.

During the show, my thoughts continued to turn toward him, his work, his life, and after it ended with Simon alone onstage singing “The Sound of Silence” (had he heard the news?) I booted up my phone. There was an invitation from the Los Angeles Times to share my thoughts about Roth.

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I mentioned this to my daughter and she said “You’ve just been racially profiled,” a trenchant observation Roth might have appreciated.

As a middle-aged male novelist who happens to be Jewish, one might make certain cultural pre-judgments about me, including the notion that I would reliably prostrate myself at the shrine of Roth. One would be correct to do this. I have been conjuring with his protean output for nearly 50 years. Like many readers of my generation, the entry drug was “Portnoy’s Complaint.” At 13, I purloined my mother’s copy, its vivid yellow, black and red cover lastingly imprinted on my brain and — read it?

No, “read” is too scrawny a verb — I devoured it as if it were a pork joint and I, Henry VIII, while the rest of the house slept in blissful ignorance of the fireworks detonating in my head.

These were the junior high school years, and we were spending our time with the likes of “David Copperfield.” A perceptive teacher had recommended “The Catcher in the Ryeto me as an off-menu item, but as much I enjoyed that book, Holden Caulfield was weak tea next to the immortal Alexander Portnoy.

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The adolescent me had no idea “Portnoy’s Complaint” was a landmark creative achievement that would rock the cultural world. It was simply rude, unhinged and hilarious in a way that I had no idea literature could be. The obligatory liver reference should probably go here, but more to the point is that, like the ancient Greeks out for an evening’s entertainment seeing “Oedipus,” I had no idea this was even literature. That Roth was a sentence-maker the way Vermeer was a painter did not register. He put roaring voice to the rampaging Jewish id, a phenomenon whose previous existence had escaped me, since I was raised in Scarsdale, N.Y., where the Jews acted like Episcopalians.

As long as we’re on the subject of Scarsdale, you probably don’t know that the tennis scene in the movie version of “Goodbye, Columbus” was filmed on the courts of my alma mater, Scarsdale High School. I hadn’t encountered the novella at that point in the late ’60s, but the summer romance/Jewish sociological exegesis of Neil Klugman and Brenda Patimkin was unlike anything I’d seen on the big screen.

When I finally read “Goodbye, Columbus” years later, after I had begun writing novels, what struck me was the near impossibility of an author in his mid-20s writing a piece of fiction so finely wrought.

To a writer, Roth’s productivity, verging on superhuman, was both inspiration and admonishment — this is what a career looks like, son: Get thee to Connecticut, lock yourself in a room, have no children or enduring romantic attachments, and grind it out, book after book, year after year.

Although he is often lumped with Bellow and Updike in a triumvirate of late 20th century male literary titans, and those two have their rabid partisans, for my money, it’s Roth by a length. If you’re on Twitter, don’t @ me. This is strictly personal reading taste. I never warmed to Bellow, and while I admire Updike, the only novel of his I enjoyed was “Bech: A Book,” his attempt to write a Roth novel.

Roth won every major literary prize on offer, save for the Nobel, an oversight I took personal offense to on an annual basis. While there is absolutely no evidence for this, it certainly seemed like something nefarious was afoot. It is in no way diminishing the accomplishment of recent winners such as Herta Muller or Svetlana Alexievich, or Bob Dylan, for that matter, to observe that this egregious lapse in judgment brought home the silliness of the prize culture in a way unseen since the year John Wayne beat out Dustin Hoffman for an Oscar. Obviously, the recent embarrassing contretemps in Stockholm is the Nobel Committee’s karma for this omission.

Of course, not everyone shares my enthusiasm. Roth is routinely pilloried by women and men for the alleged thinness of his female characters, and I would be remiss if I said there is not a smidgen of truth to this. The Rothian Anna Karenina or Emma Bovary do not exist. While Drenka, an unforgettable character in his late masterpiece “Sabbath’s Theater” is an undeniably vivid presence in the book, she pales in the incandescent light of the titular Mickey Sabbath, one of Roth’s most indelible creations.

Roth wrote best when writing about unquiet maleness, Jews, and Newark — in other words, Philip Roth. And yet. He is a perspicacious writer on the subject of America, and while he is considered a bard of the unbridled libido, if you take the time to read “Paternity,” a deeply moving remembrance of his father, his tender aspect is undeniable. The late surge remains an astonishment. Although the quartet of novels he published over the last productive years of his life are occasionally referred to as “minor,” taken together they are a major accomplishment and an impressive coda for a canonical author.

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A few months ago, there was a Twitter thread on which several writers I know were tearing Roth to shreds for the usual sins: too male, misogynistic, overrated. Twitter combat is not my area so although tempted, I held back from jumping in and lambasting their jealous carping. Roth does not need me to defend him. In a hundred years, if there are serious readers interested in the nuances of American life in our time they will be reading Philip Roth. And somewhere, there will be a 13-year old under the covers with a flashlight, and she’ll be reading Roth too.

Greenland is the author of five novels. His latest, “The Hazards of Good Fortune,” will be published by Europa Editions in August.


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