An insightful portrait of a creative life.
New Yorker writer Pierpont (Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World, 2000) admired Philip Roth long before she met him at a party in 2002. That meeting generated nearly a decade of conversations that inform this book: part biography—“used primarily as illumination”—part literary and cultural history, part Roth’s own memories, all in the service of examining Roth’s long, prolific career. Goodbye, Columbus (1959) catapulted the young author to fame, earning a National Book Award and acclaim from such prominent literary figures as Saul Bellow, Alfred Kazin, Irving Howe and Leslie Fiedler. It also incited accusations of anti-Semitism among readers who objected to Roth’s portrayal of his characters. “I’ll never write about Jews again,” he announced after a particularly grueling attack. But 10 years later—after two critical and commercial failures—Portnoy’s Complaint appeared. This novel, about “a wretchedly good Jewish boy’s attempts to squirm out of the ethical straitjacket of his childhood...,” was, writes Pierpont, “one of the signal subversive acts of a subversive age” and established Roth’s literary identity. Pierpont traces Roth’s life through two marriages, many affairs, a few awkward dates with Jacqueline Kennedy, assorted medical maladies and near-suicidal depression. She offers judicious overviews of his works and critics’ responses, including feminists’ accusations of misogyny. Although she draws somewhat on Roth’s two partial autobiographies, she calls her subject a master of self-disguise, most overtly revealed in Zuckerman, the protagonist of four novels, including Zuckerman Unbound. “Without Zuckerman—or some other mask,” writes Pierpont, “Roth is kind, discreet, and far from exciting. Also, far from truthful.” Although the opinionated Roth never avoided a fight, the man Pierpont came to know was reserved, gentle and cautious. “This is a discrepancy that all of Roth’s friends observe,” she notes: “the literary pirate who carries a bottle of Purell.”
Although not a substitute for a full biography, Pierpont’s book offers a candid and sympathetic portrait of an audacious writer.