RE-READING PHILIP ROTH

Philip Roth won the Pulitzer Prize in 1997 for “American Pastoral.” It’s at or near the top of any list of Philip Roth’s greatest novels and understandably so. As a detailed and evocative portrait of life in mid-twentieth century America, it’s amazing. Certainly, the novel is inspiring to someone like me, at the lowest end of the authorial food chain, who dabbles in the world of memoir and also tries to evoke “the times.”

When I originally read the book, in 1998, my life involved alternating work and fatherhood immersion. My children were 14, 8 and 6. We also had a crazy dog whose walking needs, despite the kids’ promises to help, generally fell to me. It was a challenge to read a novel more literary than “The Berenstain Bears Go Fishing.” Yet, I found time to plow through “American Pastoral” with a lot of skimming. I failed to retain any details from that “reading” other than it’s set in New Jersey and includes a deadly bombing.

Recently, “American Pastoral” appeared in our home as a selection by my wife’s book group. Blessed with the luxury of time and concentration, I set out to savor every expertly chosen word, every finely crafted paragraph.  Reading Roth, carefully, I pondered the following: “If an eighth grader were to write a series of two-hundred-word sentences, surely he would flunk English composition. But when Philip Roth does it, it’s “Stylish with a capital ‘S’.’”

Is Roth’s sort of Style what is missing from my writing?

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To answer this question, I’ve decided to give it a try? After all, the writer’s mission is to furnish his reader with every opportunity to gain insight, to find kernels of truth that are elusive, to brave the question, the imponderable, the unanswerable reality that so infects the human condition with uncertainty, vexation, puzzlement and even – if the truth be obtainable by mere mortals – to gain a gift from God, if He exists, or She, for that matter, for in relation to man’s ultimate place in the pantheon of beings, what a gift it would be to truly comprehend!

With this in mind, I thought back to my childhood, to every moment that has shaped me, made me who I am, formed my consciousness, my reality, or what I think of as my reality which may or may not be actually thus, since perhaps, my perception of my own existence is wrapped in a time-space continuum no less opaque than the stone walls in the West Philadelphia home where I grew up and yet who could doubt that my own fate formed amidst the hopes and dreams that my parents, too, felt for themselves and for me and for my brothers and sister — whose destiny controls, after all? Who can say? And why? Surely, if I strive to reach an understanding of myself in relation to others and to the surrounding community it will all devolve back to that question, the most human of questions, and yet the most Godly: Who is in charge around here and, more importantly, is there coffee ice cream in the freezer?

Women, of course, have influenced me, from the earliest days when I was doubtless close to my mother, (though I could have been close to my father, but for his need, real AND perceived OR illusory to pursue the American dream in the most obvious way, by working, working, working) and not to forget the formative nature of my elementary school years of near-total obliviousness, to the middle school years of embarrassing silence, to the high school years of embarrassing non-silence – and finally, to choosing a wife, a life partner, or being chosen, perhaps, because that’s possibly what really happened, but maybe not, since one’s destiny to join that of another human being may not be deemed a choice but may be more a matter of mysterious chance, a happenstance of cosmic timing, a blip, whether eventually it proves itself heavenly or hellish, (determined over time and even then subject to the interpretation of each individual involved, and subject to the opinions of society at large, inevitably applying its own shifting standards) that shapes much of the rest of a person’s experience of life, with life, of course, defined perhaps as no more than the short period between birth and death.

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“Live for the moment,” everyone says, yet plan for retirement, that period of reflection, when all the points have been scored, the blanks filled in, the results tabulated, one’s place in the pantheon of human existence finally secured, as we hurtle towards death, a final rest, a complete rest, for no rest could be more absolute. But think about it: only in America could opportunity be gleaned to rise within one generation from immigrant to professional and to give one’s progeny the opportunity, if they choose, to return to wearing torn jeans and working as organic farmers – those who have descended from ancestors reviled on the shtetls of Eastern Europe now reveling in the freedoms of the Middle Atlantic states’ safe harbors of assimilation. But what has been left behind? What has been lost when the very foundation of existence is uprooted, twisted and turned into an unrecognizable visage of yearning, of aspiration, of success and, dare it be admitted, possible eventual incontinence? Oh, America.

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Well, what do you think? Shall I continue as a Rothian? Or would the reader, perhaps, be happier if the next book I reread is by Hemingway?

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