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Fall/Winter 2001

Dancing with America: Philip Roth, Writer on the Left
by Marshall Berman


Assistant:  Sir, the Dean is waxing wroth!

Groucho Marx (as college president):  Well, tell the Dean to stop waxing wroth, and let Roth go and wax the Dean for a while.



Sex and obscenity are not synonymous.The portrayal of sex in art,literature and scientific works is not in itself sufficient reason to deny constitutional protection. Sex, agreat and mysterious motive force in human life, has indisputably been the subject of absorbing interest to mankind through the ages; it is one of the vital problems of human interest and public concern.

—Justice Brennan in Roth v. United States (1957)



            People don’t usually think of Philip Roth as part of the Left.  They

are missing something big.   Thinking of Roth as leftist can help us get a deeper perspective both on the meaning of Roth’s work and on the meaning of the American Left itself.   Think of this essay as a beginning of a conversation about Roth and the Left.   

Roth has written over twenty books of fiction. Of these, Portnoy’s Complaint seems to me Roth’s most perfectly realized work; it brings together so many of his abiding themes so well. Portnoy was published in 1969, a great time for the American Left, and a time when a new wave of feminism emerged from the Left. The men and women on the Left in 1969 fought about everything, but shared a faith that, despite all the gulfs between friends and lovers, and despite all the misery and horror in the world, people had the capacity to come together, to overcome, to create a life that would be both happier and better than the life we lived. Alex Portnoy is one of those people. His story may be able to help us see what remains of that Left, and what, in its project and its sprit, is still alive.


Two true stories from my life, one nice and one nasty, can help us consider the importance of Roth’s work.  Both took place in the early seventies and underground.  The nice story happened on the subway heading for Brooklyn on an almost deserted #3 Express. One of the few people in my car was a young black man, dressed in work clothes, thick with fresh plaster dust.  He was reading a paperback edition of Portnoy’s Complaint.  As he read he laughed wildly, his torso flopping back and forth. I sat down next to him, and said “Excuse me, I just wanted to say you’re the first non-Jew I’ve seen who’s having as good a time with that book as I did.”  He pointed to one of Roth’s great routines, which he was in the midst of, gave me a big smile, and said “Hell, man, everybody’s got a mother.” 

This young black worker was a real person, and yet he seems to step right out of a classic Popular Front mural. Roth has shown, both in Portnoy and more elaborately in I Married a Communist (1998), how much the Popular Front formed his youthful sensibility. The vision includes celebration of the worker’s intense physicality and a fascinated envy of men who live by physical work, coming from men who do not. There is an idealized equation of the body with the emotions, so that the observer feels that such a man can be at home not only with is body (notice, he feels no need to sit up straight), but also with his emotions (notice, he feels free to laugh out loud). The image of the worker with the book is more complex—mentally as well as physically alive, searching for new ideas and new life, yearning to overcome.

Another Rothian theme is faith in a special affinity of blacks and Jews: we need no introductions, we intuitively understand each other. Roth has insisted on this for almost half a century.  Finally, the affirmation that “ Everybody’s got a mother”—the tragicomedies of our childhoods, our twisted but unbreakable bonds with our mothers, and our capacity to laugh about this together as adults—creates an ultimate human solidarity.

The nasty story also happened underground.  For several years, in the late sixties and early seventies, I was part of a group of college teachers who occupied various corporate and academic buildings to protest our country’s participation in the Vietnam War.  Sit-in-type protests, involve long lulls, often lasting through the night, while you sit on hard floors and wait (sometimes in vain) to get arrested.  These were people who read, so one easy opening for strangers was to talk about was what we were reading.  Novels have always been my favorite reading, and back in the Nixon years  Portnoy’s Complaint was my Number One.  Late one night, about a hundred of us were occupying the basement of the Columbia Physics building.  Some of us were comparing favorite books, I was doing Rothian rants, people were laughing, when, abruptly, a declamatory male voice rang out:  “I don’t read fiction.”

 I was taken aback, and I said something like, “Well, different strokes for different folks.”

A scornful response came from a woman sitting on that man’s side of the room: “WE don’t read fiction.”

Instantly the temperature dropped thirty degrees, the night became a silent night, and I thought, where did our Left go? Those harsh voices came from intellectuals who were betraying the honor of the intellectual. People like this have played big roles in the academic novels that Roth has been writing since the 1970s.  They also haunted the Stalinist countries that Roth came to know as editor of the great “Writers From the Other Europe” series in the 1970s and 1980s. Both there and here they have done all they can to keep the free play of the mind from breaking out.

Roth is famous for his Proustian capacity to write nostalgia.  His most luminous nostalgic visions focus on his mother’s kitchen in Newark, and on his Jewish family romance.  But he has also written brilliant, thick descriptions of his old neighborhood in which that kitchen was embedded.  It is exactly that kind of immigrant working-class neighborhood that nourished the Popular Front, and sustained several generations of American radicalism.  It is through the father in Roth’s fiction that we learn something about the neighborhood and class identity that made Roth the writer he became.   In Portnoy’s Complaint, the hero’s father makes a living by selling life insurance to Blacks in Newark’s ghetto, and goes door to door week by week collecting pennies.   He is literate, he wears a suit, he writes up policies.  But his white collar confers only the privilege of working to the point of collapse, with no overtime, without a union to speak for him, and without much to show for a lifetime on the job, except for his hopes that his son can go beyond him.   

            It is crucial for us, in 2001, to see this father as part of the working class. Alas, in the classic American working-class romance, only men in boots can qualify; men in suits are classed as “bourgeois” even if they have no property or capital, even if they work under orders till they drop. Roth’s heroes often try to blur the class lines, often with tragic results, but ever since Goodbye Columbus, Roth has shown a complex, nuanced awareness of where the lines are.

            In years to come, more and more of the labor force class will be people in suits, writing up policies; more of them will be women working alongside men—or working at home with their computers. Both sexes will be available on their mobile phones for a 24/7 workday, exploited, outsourced, downsized, re-engineered together. Few of them will be represented by unions, and this will leave them vulnerable, unless the unions learn to reach out and organize. The American Left had better get to know these workers soon. If it wants to make a difference in the world.

            The Portnoys live where Roth grew up, in Newark’s old Central Ward. It is exactly the kind of immigrant working-class neighborhood that nourished the Popular Front and sustained several generations of American radicalism. Here Portnoy flashes back to his preadolescence, and offers a radiant adoration of “the men” of the old neighborhood:

On Sunday mornings, when the weather is warm enough, twenty of the neighborhood men (this is in the days of short center field) play a round of seven-inning softball, the stakes for each game a dollar a head. The umpire is our dentist, old Dr. Wolfenberg, the neighborhood college graduate—night school on High Street, but as good as Oxford to us.  Among the players is our butcher, his twin brother our plumber, the grocer, the owner of the service station where my father buys gas.   ‘The Mad Russian’ Biderman, owner of the corner candy store (and bookie joint), Allie Sokolow, prince of the produce market.  I think of them only as ‘the men’….In the on-deck circle, even at the plate, they roll their jaws on the stumps of soggy cigars. Not boys, you see, but men.  Belly!  Muscle!  Forearms black with hair! Bald domes!  And the voices they have on them—cannons you can hear go off from our front stoop a block away.  I imagine vocal cords inside them thick as clotheslines! Lungs the size of zeppelins!  And the outrageous things they say! (pp, 241ff).


These players are clearly “men in boots,” far more “physical” than Alex’s father, one of the “men in suits.”  (His father can’t play on Sunday because that’s his big day at work.)  “The men” could be on loan from Sholem Asch’s Kola Street, or from any classic Mexican, Soviet, or New Deal mural. Any one of them looks like he could go mano-a-mano with any man.  Through young Alex’s eyes, on Sunday, they look like paragons of power; he will “love growing up to be a Jewish man” just like them.  But the grown-up Portnoy knows that, come Monday, these invincible men will become invisible men, subject to a cruel market society that can blow away their beloved stores like leaves. Rothian nostalgia is rooted in bitter understanding: no neighborhood gemeinschaft can hold out against the gesellschaft that is the global market.

In the early 1960s, nice Jewish boys like Portnoy played crucial roles in struggles for nuclear peace and civil rights. They helped to define the culture of the sixties. Many put their lives on the line, as in the 1964 Mississippi “Freedom Summer,” and a few died. The survivors did well in the world and helped create the New Left.  This is roughly where Roth situates Portnoy, as a city commissioner, working for a WASP radical mayor, who militantly and imaginatively defends New York’s oppressed.  Striding through the streets with a model on his arm, Portnoy will look like a debonair man of the world, working for the poor as if it were noblesse oblige.  But Roth makes it clear where his hero comes from, even if that hero loses track. He shows us how leftists who conceive of their politics as politics-for-others can really still, in ways they don’t understand, be fighting for themselves.  It isn’t for lack of what Freud described as “ money, power, and the love of women.” As Roth imagines these guys, they are getting plenty.  But their inner lives are moral anarchy laced with emotional agony.

Bob Dylan was pop music’s righteous Jewish kid.  Eventually he felt swamped by the demand for righteousness, and he said to hell with it.  Soon he was damned to hell by many of his dearest friends.  In time, he would atone plenty for his sins¾and would even become, for a while in the 1970s, a born-again Christian.  But first, in the mid-sixties, he made a stunning creative leap, “went electric”, took drugs, wrote lyrics that were brilliant, outrageous, obscure, weird, and deep, and took popular music into a space where it had never been before.  Dylan’s trajectory should make it easier to grasp Roth’s own creative leap in the sixties, and his achievement in risking, even courting his own vision of damnation to open and deepen the American novel. 

One of the directions in which Roth leapt was toward writing about sex.  Roth has always had a knack for writing hot sex scenes.  A primary source of the heat he generates is his power to identify with both participants, so as to make his readers feel what it is like to be both. But in Portnoy he went further, and started to write not only about mutual encounters but about personal obsessions.  He began to create characters who don’t just do the things that all lovers do (or want to do), but things that they themselves feel are disgusting.  If the expression for sex in Roth’s (and my) youth was “going all the way,” many of his people want to go somewhere beyond all the way, to break on through to the other side of all the way. 

 Older readers will remember that orgasm was the sexual Mount Everest in Norman Mailer’s fiction a generation ago; Roth’s post- Portnoy characters don’t seem to have any trouble coming, but they still can’t get no satisfaction.  It’s as if, even when they get together, they still seem to be fucking themselves.  In Portnoy and, a generation later, in Sabbath’s Theater, we meet couples who, the moment they begin to click in bed, start to think about who else they can get into bed with them.  They are dying for sex, but even when they get it, they want it to be a transgression, somewhere on the other side of all the way. 

We can recognize these people, even when we lack their obsessions. One big thing we do share with them is a sense of being uprooted.  Many of them grew up poor, but—in the Cold War’s heyday, when Jews at last were welcome in American higher education—got scholarships and became intellectuals.  Education and culture were their tickets to mobility, but now they don’t know where to move.  Compared with the inhabitants of their lost old neighborhoods, compared with their parents, Roth’s lovers don’t belong anywhere.  And the more they feel disembedded, the more they fight to be embodied.  Their bodies thrash around or float free in an existential void, and Roth is a great artist of that void.

Even before Portnoy, Roth had the rep of a “bad boy” who cared only about sex and was indifferent to higher values, to politics, to a larger human happiness.  Roth  might have quoted Freud, that “sexual (genital) love” is not only “the strongest experience of satisfaction,” but “the prototype of all happiness”[1] (Civilization And Its Discontents, Chapter 4; Freud Reader p. 743).  And he would say anybody who doesn’t see how sex is a higher value shows their ignorance of human beings. But he would also vehemently deny the dualism of sex versus politics.

This is dramatized brilliantly in parts of Portnoy that doesn’t get noticed much.  In 1948, the teenage Alex and some of his buddies, all virgins, visit a whore named Bubbles Girardi. (“In Newark, whore rhymes with poor.”) They succeed, but he is paralyzed by guilt. Roth gives Alex’s sense of guilt a strikingly political form: “Actually, I should be visiting the Girardi home to evangelize for Henry Wallace and Glenn Taylor. . . for who are the Girardis if not the people?” 

Twenty years later, he has a great career and a gorgeous women, but he still feels like an outsider. He has terrific sex with his girlfriend, a model who is another refugee from “the people.”  Her diction makes his heart sink, and he responds to her crudity with an educated crudity of his own. But she smites him with a J’accuse: “You care more about the niggers in Harlem that you don’t even know than you do about me whos’ been sucking you off for a solid year” (p. 105). Her critique of Portnoy contrasts his idealism with his real behavior. She points out how great fighters for the rights of “the people” can be cold and brutal toward real people.  Portnoy’s girlfriend’s indictment is probably the classic charge against the Left. We all know people who are guilty of this, and all human beings are guilty of this sometimes. But for radicals like Roth’s, the charge feels like a bomb planted in their beds. Maybe everybody does it, but on the Left are the only ones who really care.

            It’s easy to feel disgusted with Portnoy’s nastiness and egomania. But even in the midst of his clamor, he cares for others.  He hates rabbis, but would agree with Rabbi Hillel, “If I am for myself alone, what am I?” He could never play ball with Ivan Boesky or Michael Eisner.  He wants to be a brute, but his empathy overwhelms his brutality. Goyishe girls always notice, and they love him for it. It is what makes him his mother’s boy, a sensitive man, and a leftist.

Roth’s latest wave of novels features many of the same characters and environments we have known since Goodbye, Columbus; but somehow they have grown deeper and more complex.  Writing at full force in his late sixties—he could be a poster child for Social Security or the AARP—his books ooze pain, and yet he hasn’t, like so many older writers, turned sour on life. Even when he sounds unbalanced, he’s amazingly there.  His work refutes all the clichés about “what fiction used to mean” but supposedly doesn’t anymore.  Every one of these books matters, every one is a direct challenge to the way we live and the stories we tell to make our lives mean something.

In Sabbath’s Theater we learn more from Roth and perhaps about Roth. This novel focuses on a man whose selfishness is equaled only by his determination to mess himself up. Roth makes him the loser in a classic New York 1956 obscenity case.  In fact, that classic case was decided in 1957, and it was called by a name that Roth could never have gotten away with in fiction, but that I’ll bet has haunted his fantasy life: Roth v. United States.  That case, known in every court and law school as Roth, upheld a conviction and put a man, Samuel Roth, in prison.  But Roth, as written by the great Justice Brennan, affirmed the value of erotic writing and art, and created a newly generous First Amendment standard for erotic publication: only work that is “utterly without redeeming social importance” can be banned.  Erotic publisher Samuel Roth, the martyred hero of this case, was an intellectual crank whom author Philip Roth could easily have invented.  There may be a homage in the perverse Sabbath, who often sounds like he is trying to stretch the Roth envelope to prove to society that he is “utterly without redeeming social value.” 

But Roth is full of surprises: the story ends with a stunning epiphany. The one love of Micky Sabbath’s life is a middle-aged Yugoslav innkeeper named Drenka. They have had an open marriage without being married. But now Sabbath’s sweet sexpot is about to die of ovarian cancer, and she confesses to Micky that she loved him all these years not for sex but for his political identity: he was “my secret American boyfriend.” To dance with him, in dozens of sleazy motels, was “to dance with America.” Roth is urging us to see eroticism as a marker, not of superiority to “the system,” but of inclusion in it. This insight bears not just on Micky Sabbath, but on a whole crowd of Rothian characters—and maybe on their creator—who have celebrated sex as a transgressive triumph.

The Human Stain synthesizes Roth’s two very different perspectives on sex: it offers a transgressive love affair that for all its hot sex is basically a work of thought. Roth’s star-crossed lovers are Coleman Silk and Faunia Farley. Silk has told the world that he is a Jew but we learn that he really was a black man, and that his life’s work has consisted in “passing” and creating a new self.  Faunia comes on like a hillbilly who can’t read. (She challenges him, “You’re not up to fucking someone who can’t read.”)  He rises to the challenge, and their affair is described in vivid detail with all of Roth’ patented hot licks.  With Faunia as his guru as well as his bimbo, Silk takes joy in raw, unmediated sex, supposedly free from literacy.  It is only after their death that Roth’s narrator, Zuckerman, learns that she was keeping a diary of their affair all along.  Both are fakes, yet Roth makes their love real.  This reality is both ignited and destroyed by politics.

One more great couple whose intercourse is both ignited and destroyed by politics. Through the years, some feminists have given Roth plenty of trouble. But there is no writer anywhere who can show us more vividly the truth of what feminists proclaimed in 1970: “The personal is political.” It might even be that what Roth, a child of the McCarthy era, has been trying to tell us all along is that it’s  politics that’s the real, ineradicable human stain.          

By Rothian standards, there isn’t much sex in American Pastoral (1997), Roth’s best book of the nineties, but there’s plenty of transgression.  There are several overlaying themes.  One is a father’s yearning for his lost daughter, a sweet, spacey “good girl” named Merry who somehow, at the end of the sixties, grew into a “bad girl” making bombs that killed people, and who now, in atonement, is living in Newark’s blackest hole and starving herself to death.  I knew a number of kids who “went underground,” and I don’t think Roth gets them: they were both smarter and more twisted than he imagines.  But he’s terrific on their mostly liberal (and antiwar) parents.

American Pastoral’s second big theme is the tragic ruin of America’s industrial cities. The nostalgic genius that Roth has always shown in writing about Jewish families

and neighborhoods now gets expanded into a perspective on an industrial city and an industrial society as a whole. He writes vividly about the decay, but his writing really takes off when he tries to imagine the city as a utopia of industry.

            The voice he develops to tell this story could be called Industrial Pastoral. The common feeling here is that life was far more “real” and more “authentic” yesterday, when men in boots made things, than it is today, when it is a lot harder to say what it is we do all day. One important quality of pastoral vision is that it leaves out dirty work. Here Roth’s title takes on a critical force.

            The grieving father, Swede Levov, is a manufacturer of ladies’ gloves. The idea of the romance of gloves is developed in great richness of detail. “The inner digit on the hand of man,” says the Swede, “that might be the distinguishing physical feature between us and the rest of the animals. And the glove protects that inner digit. The ladies’ glove, the welder’s glove, the rubber glove, the baseball glove. . . This is the root of humanity. This enables us to make tools and to build cities and everything else” (p. 129). In days gone by, Swede’s father Lou recalls, “A woman wouldn’t go outside without a pair in any weather” (p.348).  Roth’s romance of gloves gradually takes on a symbolic and metaphysical depth. Gloves come to stand for civilization, in an affirmative way, in what they protect, but also—and this note grows more urgent as the book advances—in a negative way, in what they hide.

            Early in the book, the narrator Zuckerman, imagining Swede Levov’s family evolution through the years, introduces a crucial idea (the italics here are mine): “each generation breaking away…a little further, out of the desire to go the limit in America” (p. 85). The idea is that there is something about America itself that entices and drives people to “go all the way.”  We have seen this theme in Roth’s treatment of sex; it is fascinating to see it expand and envelop the whole American economy and society.

As a prosecutor, Roth brings up the Swede’s kid brother Jerry from Miami, where he is a hotshot surgeon, to scream at him about his life’s human costs. Jerry accuses Swede, in effect, of gloving himself: “You don’t reveal yourself to people. Nobody knows who you are.” No wonder Merry, the lost daughter, has “blasted away” at his secrecy. Self-concealment, Jerry says, was Swede’s strategy for Jewish assimilation—a disastrous strategy, as it has turned out.

            That lost daughter Merry is the book’s biggest problem. We never really meet this girl, but we hear a series of male characters foam at their mouths against her and drown her individuality in torrents of invective.  Sometimes it’s her Uncle Jerry, sometimes her father himself, and sometimes what sounds like an author’s voiceover shouting above them all.  The women in the book feel a sympathy for Merry (though not for her Weather politics) that shades into love.  The rage and hate come from men.  Jerry, the man who vilifies both daughter and father most, is at least as guilty as she is of the crimes of  “going to the limit in America.” He is the book’s biggest rat, a nihilist who seems to know no shame, whose lust and boredom have led him to abandon three families and wreck God-only-knows-how-many lives, and you know he will leave more casualties as he goes.  The gender polarization over Merry does not make men look good.  This girl has crashed with a political vision that “goes the limit in America”. But the patriarchs who sit and curse her are just as guilty as she is of crimes against humanity that come from going all the way.

The book’s last act is a brilliantly realized dinner party, at first festive, then embattled, finally terrifying.  The glovers are ready for their final epiphany:  “The old system that made order doesn’t work anymore.  All that was left was his fear and astonishment, but now concealed by nothing”(pp. 421f). 

If the trajectory of American Pastoral means anything, it means that Roth believes that every critical thing the sixties Left said about bourgeois America is true.  He thinks the bombings were horrible, but also, ironically, that they were unnecessary: just leave a bunch of normal Americans alone together, as he does in this novel’s bloody last scene, and they’ll bomb themselves.  But Roth doesn’t think that either the left or anyone else knows what is to be done, how we should live after the blast.  As a writer, he has tried working without gloves for years, and he has been an inspiration to many other writers, and readers, trying to strip off their own.  But you can see here that the blood shocks him—and it should.  He feels we’ve got to talk.  He wants to say what Rodney King said during the Los Angeles riots that were named for him: Can’t we all get along together somehow?   He’s brought us forty years of awful truth: Can’t we use it to connect the dots that are us?

It should be clear that Roth is at the top of my hit parade. But, much as I loved  American Pastoral, I felt that it makes American life feel somewhat worse than it is. Forty years ago, at a time when the world almost blew up, Roth’s repertoire included hilarious black comedy. Did something happen since then to make him stop? Couldn’t he take his comic mask down from the attic and play with it a little, or at least look into its eyes?

One great source of comic energy in the late 1990s was Bill Clinton.  In The Human Stain Roth makes it clear how deeply he identifies with Clinton.  He says he “dreamed of a mammoth banner, draped dadaistically like a Christo wrapping from one end of the White House to the other and bearing the legend A HUMAN BEING LIVES HERE.” (pp. 2-3)  In fact, lots of people had dreams like this: as Roth says, “a president’s penis was on everyone’s mind, and life, in all its shameless impurity, confounded America.” All true!   And the Clinton profile – scholarship boy, mother lover, terrific talker, youthful leftist, lifetime lecher – has a special Rothian resonance.  Couldn’t he be what Alexander Portnoy might have become, had he been born a goy?  I think Roth’s comic writing actually did a lot to prepare America for Clinton.  Then when the big boy himself came panting over the horizon, groping women while he stuffed himself with McDonalds french fries and lectured reporters on “flexible accumulation”, people could recognize him—dream date of the Nineties!—and laugh.  It was only because Americans had collectively learned something, somewhere along the way, that this guy could win comfortably twice, and that then, when the Scarlet Letter posse came out again, all sorts of people who hated many of his policies—I ground my teeth most over the 1996 Welfare Bill and Plan Colombia—could still find it in their hearts to feel love for him.        

Somehow Roth doesn’t get the joke.  In fact, America in 1998 turned against its old tragic scenerio.  Didn’t the masses beyond the Beltway identify passionately with that HUMAN BEING?  Didn’t their feelings help crush his enemies and keep him in power?  In 2001, there’s still plenty that Americans don’t know (like how to rule the world), but it looks like they’ve learned some big facts of life.  They’ve learned to imagine sex as one of the great rivers whose flow not only keeps us alive, but makes us Americans.  Roth has been saying this for forty years.  I hope he can enjoy being heard, and being there.

Near the end of The Human Stain, Coleman Silk is buried, his fellow citizens at Athena College recognize his nobility and take on themselves the blame for driving him away, the orchestra plays Mahler.  And now Roth the great novelist comes into his own.  It’s as if he’s telling us, You think I’m finished?  Sit down, the party has hardly begun.  At Silk’s grave, Zuckerman encounters his sister Ernestine, one of the best women Roth has ever created.  For the next thirty pages she tells a completely new version of Silk’s story from behind the scenes.  She is the one person who has kept in touch with him, but also with the family that he denies and that came to deny him.  She speaks in a remarkably fresh voice, intellectually powerful, fluently ironic, and conveys a luminous presence.  She also has urban street smarts, she has had a career teaching school; she knows her worth even if the world doesn’t.  She is a loving observer of all the weird scenes that American Blacks, especially black men, have created and got caught up in.  She has suffered all the sorrows of Newark, and “ the Oranges.”   She has lived her whole life in the small East orange house where she was born.  She feels a true citizen’s commitment to this place, you can be sure that, no matter what, she won’t let go.  She disses Black History Month, but demands that black be incorporated into everybody’s history.   In fact, she is part of a great Newark/East Orange tradition of black women of substance.  Anyone who listens to American music knows this tradition, from Cissy Houston to Dionne Warwick to Cissy’s daugher Whitney to Queen Latifah to Lauryn Hill.  Roth doesn’t talk about these women; but the texture of Ernestine’s narrative shows he knows they’re there, holding up the New Jersey sky.

Roth lets us know that he is planning new weather patterns for this sky.  Ernestine weeps for her brother, but Zuckerman thinks “she was closer to laughter than tears.”  Faced with her tragicomic vision, he confesses to her that he no longer knows what to think about anything.  In her response, Roth presents a spectacular double helix in the politics of identity:  “Well, then,” she says, “you’re now an honorary member of the Silk family.”  Her words carry a weight that suggests they fulfil a lifelong author’s wish.  What can possibly follow this great leap?  Only an invitation to dinner.  Zuckerman must come to Sunday family dinner in East Orange and tell his story there.  It’s too late for it to happen in The Human Stain, but we can feel the rush of energy and we know Roth will make it happen by and by.   He will carry the torch of the Popular Front, enlarge the mural, open new rooms in “The House I Live In.”  Imagine: Blacks and Jews as family, sitting down together to scream at each other as only family can, with Roth back in his lost Atlantis at last!  And he may have found the woman who can help him get his comic groove back.  It could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.


[1] Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents






Pull Quotes: Berman



1.                    Roth has shown . . . how much the Popular Front formed his youthful sensibility.  (p.2)


2.                    The grown-up Portnoy knows that, come Monday, these invincible men will become invisible men, subject to a cruel market that can blow away their beloved stores like leaves. (p.6)


3.                    Roth had the rep of a “bad boy” who cared only about sex and was indifferent to higher values, to politics, to larger human happiness. (p.8)


4.                    His books ooze pain, and yet he hasn’t, unlike so many older writers, turned sour on life. (p.10)


5.                    Roth is urging us to see eroticism as a marker, not of superiority to “the system,” but of inclusion in it. (p.11)


6.                    There is no writer anywhere who can show us more vividly the truth of what feminists proclaimed in 1970: “the personal is political.” (p.12)


7.                    The Clinton profile—scholarship boy, mother lover, terrific talker, youthful leftist, lifetime lecher—has a special Rothian resonance. (p.15)