The Nicest Boy in the World


by Philip Roth
Houghton Mifflin, 233 pp., $26.00

There ought to be behind the door of every happy, contented man some one standing with a hammer continually reminding him with a tap that there are unhappy people; that however happy he may be, life will show him her claws sooner or later, trouble will come for him—disease, poverty, losses, and no one will see or hear, just as now he neither sees nor hears others.1

—Anton Chekhov

What do people think when they come across photographs in a newspaper of young men and women killed in Iraq? I take it for granted that they feel pity and horror that someone so young is no more, but it would be interesting to know just how far they venture to imagine the lives of the young as they read the few lines of biographical information that accompany the picture. Here’s Fred Something-or-Other, born in a small town out west, or in some city in the east, whose name and face recall someone we used to know in high school, looking at us, out of a photograph taken by the military, with the usual swagger of young men wearing a uniform. Many are making an effort to smile, some appear grim and determined, and only a few have the vulnerable, worried look of kids who think they might come back to their parents in a coffin.

The Pentagon’s ban on making images of dead soldiers’ homecomings and burials is intended to prevent us from turning into novelists for a moment, from speculating about their lives and the cause for which they died. This order of things, knowing nothing about the fate of others, is evidently necessary, Chekhov observes in one of his stories. What he has to say on that subject was true of the Russia of his day and is true of America today:

The happy man only feels at ease because the unhappy bear their burdens in silence, and without that silence happiness would be impossible.

It follows that what a writer must do is give a reader an occasional tap on the head and once in a while a good whack.

“My fiction is about people in trouble,” Philip Roth told an interviewer after Goodbye Columbus received the National Book Award in 1960.2 Some of the characters in his novels and stories are in trouble because of their own flaws and the mess they’ve made of their lives, but many of them are either the victims or are in some way implicated in the history of their times. World War II, the McCarthy period, the Vietnam War, the sexual revolution of the 1960s, political terrorism, Watergate, the women’s movement, and even the administration of President George W. Bush all figure in his most recent books. More and more, in Roth’s fiction, history and the individual are interdependent. He writes about the experience and the accompanying moral conflicts of those left at the mercy of events and ideas over which they have…

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