I never had the “talk” with my parents. I had only the “book”: Portnoy’s Complaint, which one evening my mother, in a rare embarrassed flush, tossed in my direction before escaping to her bedroom, trailed by a rushed “You might get a kick out of that.” It was the old mass-market paperback—not the famous yellow-and-red jacket that blared like a siren, but the edition with maroon block text stamped over a brownish background, giving the impression that the novel had been discreetly wrapped in a brown paper bag, or perhaps brown butcher paper, like the kind that enclosed the “maddened piece of liver” Alexander Portnoy violated behind a billboard on the way to Hebrew school.
I had just been kicked out of Hebrew school, a year ahead of my bar mitzvah, and I felt an immediate intimacy with the novel’s author, Philip Roth. Though two generations separated us, I felt that he spoke directly to me or, in some mystical, incoherent sense, spoke from somewhere inside my brain. I had read novels that frightened and delighted me, made me laugh, made me question—Roth’s writing did all that, but it also elicited a spookier response. I had never before read a writer who knew me. It was a shock to discover that others felt the same way—including many who were not Jewish teenage boys.
Roth called this the “ruthless intimacy” of fiction. In a speech given at a celebration of his eightieth birthday, he argued that such intimacy can only derive from “a scrupulous fidelity to the blizzard of specific data that is a personal life.” In many of the appreciations published since his death on May 22 there has persisted the misunderstanding that the main appeal of Roth’s fiction lies in his characters’ biographical circumstances: predominantly Jewish, middle-class, sex-obsessed, self-tormented. The posthumous criticisms commit the same error—Roth’s work is “narrow” and “tiresome” for the repetitiveness of his subject matter. (The same might be said of Jane Austen, Marcel Proust, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and one of Roth’s literary idols, Saul Bellow.) There’s something to this—what Hebrew school dropout doesn’t cherish the moment in “The Conversion of the Jews” when Ozzie Freedman orders his mother and his rabbi to acknowledge that “God can make a child without intercourse”? But Roth’s genius has nothing to do with biographical coincidence.
It is found, as he put it himself, in his work’s “concreteness, its unabashed focus on all the particulars, a fervor for the singular and a profound aversion to generalities.” He saw more precisely, and therefore more honestly, than anyone else. One doesn’t have to be Jewish, male, sexually ravenous, or consumed by rage and love for one’s mother to empathize with Alexander Portnoy, Nathan Zuckerman, David Kepesh—or, for that matter, a breast.
He had an especially sharp eye for the physical detail that reveals…
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