When I was entering adolescence in the late 1960s, there was one generally agreed on source of reliably sub rosa—dirty, that is—passages in contemporary American literature: the work of Philip Roth, who had recently very much come into his own as the author of Portnoy’s Complaint, a novel whose young, confused, sexually frustrated Jewish hero wrestled with the desire to be a good man while finding a moment’s respite in some friendly bed, preferably one whose occupant his mother would disapprove of.
The book was, of course, not dirty, not unthinkingly prurient, though it had plenty of things in it guaranteed to puzzle a 13-year-old, and to enrage a censor as well. Portnoy was banned and shunned, hated and excoriated—and read and read, the top-selling book of the year, almost unheard of for a literary novel. Thirty years after its original publication, the Modern Library hailed it as a classic of American literature, one of the best 100 novels of the 20th century in English, ranking up there alongside Ulysses, Mrs. Dalloway, and As I Lay Dying.
Like all of Philip Roth’s novels, Portnoy was well thought-through literature of a very high order, with an angst-ridden hero, with sex much on his mind, it is true, but tempered with the ever-growing awareness that every moment of pleasure he might experience would be accompanied by two measures of pain. The same awareness permeates the consciousness of all of Roth’s heroes—especially Nathan Zuckerman, widely seen as Roth’s alter ego, a man badgered with accusations and unwanted visitations and who wants mostly to be alone with his thoughts, down whatever corridors they may lead. In this, Roth was a cousin of Milan Kundera and Franz Kafka, not Henry Miller and Erica Jong—and in many ways a better writer than any of them.
Philip Roth, who died on May 22 at the age of 85, was famously two things: He was a laureate of urban New Jersey, that belt of territory just this side of the better-toned streets of Manhattan across the river, even though he spent much of his working life in the Connecticut countryside. Few writers captured the feel of a city street better. And he was the great chronicler of the Jewish experience in America, an experience lived out by people who had firsthand memories of the knout and the Holocaust, and who walked those city streets with the haunting fear that what had happened before could easily happen again.
Portnoy is not much read these days. Neither is Goodbye, Columbus, the novella and set of short stories that put him on the literary map when he was only in his mid–20s. But a novel of his that appeared in 2004 has found new life: The Plot Against America, in which a thoroughly Nazified Charles Lindbergh, explained away as a nationalist, becomes president of the United States, his administration bent on settling the “Jewish question” in its own efficiently American way. Democratic institutions eventually defeat the forces of homegrown fascism, but that’s by no means a given in Roth’s touch-and-go narrative, the dramatic tension rising and falling as those enemies gain the upper hand and seem poised to prevail, helped along by the good Germans—beg pardon, good Americans—of city, suburb, and countryside. “You think swastikas are only for other countries?” Roth writes. The point is thoroughly well taken.
The book, for many obvious reasons, is perhaps Roth’s timeliest, though many of Roth’s novels (American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, The Human Stain) speak directly to turning points in our history, to the facts of the matter. A dozen years old at the time, The Plot Against America has been widely read in the days since the last election. Whether we see a happy ending of our own remains to be discovered. It is a shame that we will not have Philip Roth the person to guide us through our own angst as we live through our years and confront our destinies, but we will have his books, classics of American and world literature, for time to come.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.