Philip Roth’s breakthrough novel, the runaway bestseller that made him a giant of American literature, was Portnoy’s Complaint (1969). Roth’s name is inextricably linked with that novel, for reasons both good and ill: its raucous humor, its depiction of a stifling postwar Jewish household, the primal scream of its sex-obsessed and Oedipally-tormented narrator Alexander Portnoy. With his death at age 85, Roth will be widely commemorated as that author, even confused with the character he created. Yet he was much more than that.
A rag-bag of skits about a masturbating mad boy, Portnoy’s Complaint is, yes, funny and outrageous. No reader has ever forgotten the hero’s sexual experimentation with a piece of liver. Yet Portnoy’s Complaint is one of Roth’s minor works, a quick read that dealt with the perversity of sexual desire but merely touched on the other themes—the tension between art and life, the competing claims of family and individual freedom, the fate of Jewish identity in the American melting pot—that are the backbone of Roth’s truly great books: Zuckerman Bound (1985), The Counterlife (1986), and, above all, Sabbath’s Theater (1995).
Still, Portnoy’s Complaint was a milestone in Roth’s career, and not just because of its commercial success. It was the novel where Roth truly found his voice as a fiction writer. His three apprentice books—the story collection Goodbye, Columbus (1959) and the novels Letting Go (1962) and When She Was Good (1967)—are all deftly written but very much the work of a cagey student deploying the tricks he learned in school. Roth, who had been educated at Bucknell University and the University of Chicago before going on to teach creative writing at the University of Iowa, seemed to be a perfect specimen of the MFA style promoted by academia. Like the canonical figures upheld at the time, Gustave Flaubert perhaps supreme, Roth wrote with detachment and deliberation. His peculiar voice, which would become so familiar in later decades, is only faintly discernible in those books.
Portnoy’s Complaint was Roth’s breakthrough book because he said good-bye to the fusty seriousness of his formal education. It was the novel where he started talking in the vernacular, using slang and swear-words in run-on sentences that had the jauntiness of dorm-room talk.
What liberated Roth was popular culture. As a boy he had been an avid radio listener and as an adult he got to see the birth of modern stand-up comedy in Chicago, where Nichols and May, along with Lenny Bruce, were inventing a new form of stage humor based on the interplay of voices (cerebral, sex-obsessed, and often inflected with the language of therapy). It was Roth’s genius to realize that the language of stand-up comedy could reinvigorate literary fiction.
The 1960s were also the great age of pop art, with Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein bringing the stylistic tics of advertising and comic books to canvases. Roth did something similar to literature: He wrote pop novels, where voice (often wise-cracking, satirical, and self-critical) was central, Flaubertian coolness be damned. Perhaps not coincidentally, Roth was a close friend of the painter Philip Guston, who made a similar journey from being an abstract expressionist in the 1950s to working in a more pop style in the manner of early comic strips. Guston’s series of drawings mocking Richard Nixon as a klansman paralleled Roth’s book of anti-Nixon jibes, Our Gang (1971).
If Roth found liberation in a more free-flowing style, it came at the price of a critical backlash. Grave and self-important humanists—notably the towering historian of Jewish mysticism Gershom Scholem and the earnest literary critic Irving Howe—were offended by Roth’s clownishness. Scholem lambasted Portnoy’s Complaint as a gift to anti-Semites on par with the Protocols of the Elders of Zion while Howe attacked Roth for having “a creative vision deeply marred by vulgarity.”
Never one to back out of a fight, Roth got his revenge on these critics in two ways. In The Anatomy Lesson (1983), Roth created a parody of Howe called Milton Appel. Roth’s alter-ego Nathan Zuckerman goes on a impassioned screed about supposed “intellectual giants” like Appel.
“The comedy is that the real haters of the bourgeois Jews, with the real contempt for their everyday lives, are these complex intellectual giants,” Zuckerman snorts. “They loathe them, and don’t particularly care for the smell of the Jewish proletariat either. All of them full of sympathy suddenly for the ghetto world of their traditional fathers now that the traditional fathers are filed for safekeeping in Beth Moses Memorial Park. When they were alive they wanted to strangle the immigrant bastards to death because they dared to think they could actually be of consequence without ever having read Proust past Swann’s Way. And the ghetto—what the ghetto saw of these guys was their heels: out, out, screaming for air, to write about great Jews like Ralph Waldo Emerson and William Dean Howells. But now that the Weathermen are around, and me and my friends Jerry Rubin and Herbert Marcuse and H. Rap Brown, it’s where oh where’s the inspired orderliness of those good old Hebrew school days? Where’s the linoleum? Where’s Aunt Rose? Where is all the wonderful inflexible patriarchal authority into which they wanted to stick a knife?”
Viciously lively as this attack is, Roth’s true revenge on Scholem and Howe came from writing powerful novels. In the long series of masterpieces he wrote from the late 1970s until the mid-1990s, he displayed all the qualities that his critics denied him: tenderness, rootedness in the Jewishness identity, and appreciation for the sweep of democratic life in America. His loving portrayal of his parents, most notably in his memoir Patrimony (1991), gave lie to the canard that he was a disloyal son of the Jewish people or a narcissist who cared only for himself.
Roth achieved this new sincerity without giving up the comedic gifts—the skill writing in the vernacular and talent for grotesque exaggeration—that came with Portnoy’s Complaint. The greatness of Roth was that he was a man of parts, a student of Flaubert and Thomas Mann who could also mime stand-up comedy, a high modernist and a low-brow quipster.
“Sheer playfulness and deadly seriousness are my closest friends,” Roth once told an interviewer. That combination of unmoored bawdiness and moral gravity characterize Roth’s greatest and most perverse moments, as in the amazing scene in Sabbath’s Theater where the title character Mickey Sabbath, Roth’s most perverse imp, masturbates over the grave of his lover.
A risk-taker, Roth will always have his critics. Some feminists have objected to his persistent fascination with unbridled male sexuality. Vivian Gornick derided Roth as a belonging to a cohort of novelists who have “an infantile preoccupation with themselves.” The New York Times eulogized Roth as “the last of the great white males: the triumvirate of writers—Saul Bellow and John Updike were the others—who towered over American letters in the second half of the 20th century.” Along the same lines, David Foster Wallace famously dismissed Roth (along with Updike and Norman Mailer) as “the Great Male Narcissists who’ve dominated postwar realist fiction.”
Yet narcissism is a necessary vice in fiction. The great tradition of modern fiction—running from James Joyce and Virginia Woolf to Alice Munro and Karl Ove Knausgård—is for the writer to mine their own experience for narrative, finding hitherto unexpressed truths by hewing close to actuality. Autobiography is one of the most important seedbeds for fiction, a way for the novel to illuminate new facets of reality. This is not a tradition for white men alone, nor does it deserve to die with Philip Roth.