My Life as a Fan (of Philip Roth)
Updated: Nov 18, 2021
He was so deeply imbedded in my consciousness that for my first years of high school I seem to have believed there was no other writer worth reading nor emulating. And once again, he's in the news, nearly three years after his death and in the wake of controversey engulfing Roth's handpicked biographer. I first encountered Roth as so many others have: as a young teenager (probably 14) with a dog-eared copy of Portnoy's Complaint, which I purloined from the bookshelf on the headboard of my parents' bed. I think that might have been the single best way to discover both Roth and Portnoy. The pages astounded me. The verbosity of his language, both erudite and profane excited me to no end and on the so many levels that an impressionable youth would have. The speed of the words. The outrageous comedy that was equal parts Marx Brothers-Lenny Bruce-Franz Kafka, three other masters I had either discovered at the time or was on the verge of discovering. My love affair was strong and immediate. I read and reread the book, even if I didn't quite understand it all.
Shortly thereafter, the impersonations began. It still rings loudly across the years, my first attempt to emulate Roth and Portnoy. It was a short story about a neurotic and awkward suburban Chicago Jewish kid. Like Roth, I went pseudo-autobiographical. It opened with my anti-hero relieving himself at a urinal in the boy's room of his high school. He ponders the pubic hairs trapped in the filter on the dry ice cakes at the bottom of the bowl. "Where did those hairs come from?" my narrator asks. "Are we going bald? Is puberty reversing?" I handed in the story to an editor at the school literary magazine. Of course I did. The response? "God, Bernstein. You are so gross!" Well, yeah. Like Portnoy's Complaint, my loquacious excesses were gross; also outrageous, comic, groundbreaking (I thought) for a literary magazine—and in my case, really bad writing as only high school prose of some pretense can be. But it was my start, even though the magazine rejected it outright. Within the course of two years I devoured all that Roth had written to date. I read and reread with religious fervor. Goodbye, Columbus, When She Was Good, Letting Go, Our Gang (my copy of which I'd stolen from my Nixon-hating grandmother), The Breast (the title alone was enough to suckle me in with its carnal sophistication), The Great American Novel (perfect for me, the unathletic but passionate baseball/Marx Brothers fan), and My Life as a Man. So taken was I with the latter novel, that I went to my local public library where in sheer desperation I thumbed the card catalog looking for anything written by Peter Tarnopol. I was the Portnoy of youthful Philip Roth fans, unable to control my insatiable desires for his ability to blast out words with such controlled anarchic skill. Papers ensued. In junior year, I wrote an analysis of the Portnoy family for my Modern Fiction class. Others went with the standard bearers of J. D. Salinger, John Updike, and the much-overrated Jack Kerouac (I've always agreed with Truman Capote's assessment of One the Road: "That's not writing, that's typing.") I went with the guy who spoke to me in the language of anger and comedy that I understood.
Every Grad Student
College came and went, then an interim period, and then grad school and my pursuit of "creative writing" (I put that term in off-set apostrophes in an obvious Rothian homage). At Columbia College, in Chicago, we were given free rein to focus our studies on writers we loved and admired. Roth was my number one choice for fiction, his generational peer Norman Mailer for nonfiction—a duo that often raised the ire of some of the women students in the program. But I refused to give in to the long-held literary blowback and addressed the issue outright. One of my favorite classes in the Columbia Fiction Writing program was "Dialects and Fiction." In other words, how do you get the sound of a unique voice on the page. I did a comparison/contrast essay, looking at my old friend Portnoy's Complaint and its unlikely relations to the considerable dialect usage within Alice Walker's The Color Purple. This was no easy task, but one I attacked with the force of a young man behind a billboard with a hunk of liver. My teacher was impressed with the results; she insisted I do a rewrite and submit to a university literary journal. Alas, for reasons I don't recall (most likely time), I never did. (P.S. In retrospect, comparing Roth's book with Walker's is a delicious irony given Ms. Walker's subsequent dives into outspoken anti-Semitism.)
Graduation came and so did important news: Roth was coming to Chicago's storied literary mecca, Stewart Brent Books for a rare signing event to promote his new novel Operation Shylock. I was beside myself. I rehearsed what I would say to The Great One, telling him how I discovered Portnoy in my parents' bedroom and how important the book was to my own life and writing. I was one of the first people in what proved to be a long line. We all had our Portnoy stories to tell. At last Roth was ushered in. He was followed by Irv Kupcinet, the bombastic show biz and entertainment columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. Kup was last of a dying breed, a Chicago version of Earl Wilson but with a downsized power limited to the Midwest only. Roth appeared annoyed that Kup was clinging to him as though they were best friends; when Kup took his seat at the signing table next to Roth, the novelist mostly ignored him. I was struck at how normal Roth looked: not like a writer of riveting and rebellious fiction, but more like the president of the men's club at a suburban synagogue. I tried telling him my story. "So," Roth asked me, "what came out of it?" Mine was just one of countless fan gushes he'd heard ever since Goodbye, Columbus was published. I laughed, mostly at my own embarrassment over being such a geeky fanboy. "I'm here!" was my reply. Roth asked my name, signed the book, and the magic moment was over. I had a camera with me, a real film camera in those pre-iPhone days. I asked someone to take my picture with Roth. I am all smiles and hair, looking with excitement at my idol. Roth is bent over, signing my book, a slight smile on his face. Kup is looking at his watch.
The years passed, the books came, I bought them faithfully, and read them with renewed passion, trying to glean whatever I could from them. In his last years, Roth's powers were clearly diminishing. I particularly disliked The Humbling, which came off like a well-written old man's pornographic letter to Penthouse Forum. (The Al Pacino film adaptation improved on Roth's story and lurid prose, but only slightly.). Still, you had to marvel at the man's extraordinary litearary output, which earned both Pulitzer and National Book Award honors, and several international honors. Yet, despite the many nominations, Roth never won the Nobel Prize in Literature. I, along with his legion of fans, was outraged by the misinformed ignorance of the Nobel Prize committee when they awarded the 2016 literature honors to Bob Dylan over Roth. Roth took it all in stride. "It's okay," he said. "Next year I hope they give it to Peter, Paul, and Mary."
When I was writing my book: Swastika Nation: Fritz Kuhn and the Rise and Fall of the German-American Bund, the true story of a long-forgotten late-1930s Nazi movement in the United States., I turned to Roth's The Plot Against America, his alternative history wherein Charles Lindbergh becomes president and the fascist anti-Semitic world my real-life villains dreamed of became a horrifying fictional reality. The book informed me with its straightforward prose, plus Roth and I shared an anti-hero in the form of Walter Winchell. I never sent Roth a copy of my book and I'm sure he never heard of it. In retrospect, I wish I had sent it to him, regardless of how futile the gesture might have been.
Then, the inevitable. His death in May 2018, one week after Tom Wolfe, another writer I admire. The last in their generation of Great American Writers. Three years later, his much-lauded biography was aglow in positive reviews, until we learned that his hand-picked biographer is alleged to be a predatory monster of young girls and women. The book has been dropped by its publisher and was officially "out of print" just two weeks after publication. Yet the book still had life: a smaller indie press acquired the book just a few weeks later, albeit with a smaller run and tarnished by the scandal.
Part of me thinks that Roth would be delighted by all the contretemps. It has signature makings of a great Nathan Zuckerman novel: Zuckerman anoints a writer to tell his life story. The book comes out to great acclaim but shortly thereafter the biographer is pilloried for sexual abuse in his past on a variety of fronts. Zuckerman now must contemplate the scandal. Roth would be in his element!
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