THE FACTS by Philip Roth


A Novelist's Autobiography
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Roth--the most relentlessly and trickily autobiographical of major American novelists--now offers "to demythologize myself and play it straight, to pair the facts as lived with the facts as presented." This book was written, he says, in the wake of a 1987 nervous breakdown--"to transform myself into myself, I began rendering experience untransformed"--and it consists of five smallish memoirs for his life up to around age 35. . .plus a fine (and necessary) zinger of an epilogue. The first, very brief section is a quasi-idyllic view of growing-up Jewish in lower-middle-class, 1940's New Jersey: aware of anti-Semitism, but thriving on baseball, adolescent camaraderie with other Jewish-American kids, and reliable parents. (There's also a touching portrait of Roth's relationship today with his old, frail father.) Next comes "Joe College"--in which Philip eagerly goes away to college, to Bucknell; he joins in the clownish doings of a Jewish fraternity, edits an irreverent campus journal, and acquires a steady girlfriend (furtive sex, pregnancy panics). Then, in the ironically titled "Girl of My Dreams," Roth chronicles his long, turbulent affair with--and eventual marriage to--non-Jewish Josie, divorced mother of two, "raving within and stolildly blond without." For Roth (newly published, a U. of Chicago instructor/grad-student), this was a chance to prove his de-ghetto-ization and his gutsiness--"by dint of taming the most fearson female that a boy of my background might be unfortunate enough to meet on the erotic battlefield." The result, however, was a nightmare of abortions, quarrels, "a running feud focused on my character flaws," and a wedding-by-trickery that Roth later dramatized in My Life as a Man. The fourth chapter, "All in the Family," focuses on the Jewish anti-Roth furor triggered by his story "Defender of the Faith"; the "angry Jewish resistance that I aroused," he says, "was the luckiest break I could have had. I was branded"--and compelled to keep writing about Jews. So the final memoir inevitably involves the creation of the notorious Portnoy's Complaint--which grew out of Roth's ugly breakup and court battle with Josie, his psychoanalysis, a five-year relationship with another (gentler) "shiksa," and the stormy mood of the 1960's. All five sequences are crisp, ironically humorous, engagingly thoughtful. Yet there's a feeling throughout that Roth is tending to skim the surface, to smooth the edges, of some very raw, complicated material. And Roth himself must have shared that feeling--because the epilogue is a blistering 35-page review of the book by. . .Nathan Zuckerman, that irrepressible alter ego. Zuckerman finds the memoirs too "kind, discreet, careful" to be truthful; he mocks the idyllic "romance of your childhood," distrusts the portrait of Josie ("Everything you are today you owe to an alcoholic shiksa"), and wonders why Roth's sexual compulsions get so little attention, it's a slightly precious gimmick--but a neat, corrosive windup to a semi-absorbing semi-autobiography that raises as many questions as it answers.
Pub Date: Sept. 19th, 1988
ISBN: 0679749055
Page count: 195pp
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15th, 1988


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