Summer of ’44
I wrote Roth off. Back in my early 20s, in a fit of literary conscientiousness, I undertook to sample his work. At the point when my nose could wrinkle no further in distaste, I was struck by a relieving epiphany — “Oh: these are forboys ” — upon which I resumed my reading life unburdened by any expectation of venturing deeper into Rothiana.
Until the Book Review offered me this assignment. So unlikely, so ill-conceived a pairing, I thought it must be an error. Yet no sooner had I restored my jaw to its rightful position than I found myself accepting, and an instant later my office was empty save for a few speed lines, as in a comic strip: I’d high-tailed it to the library in order to begin remediating my embarrassing literary gap, a cause to which I devoted — with a kind of mounting, marveling pleasure — much of this past summer.
All of which is to say: Before you stands a convert. I come to swallow the leek.
But first there is the matter of the cause of my early repulsion, relevant because surely not unique. The trouble for me with Philip Roth’s fiction wasn’t so much the sex thing, or even the sexism thing (although, perhaps especially in the case of a young female reader, one might reasonably expect a barrier to enjoyment to rise from the surfeit of all those women-as-orifices, women-as-booby-traps, women-as-willing-stand-ins for whatever his protagonists are so driven toshtup ). The trouble was what seemed to be the curdling vein of hostility and nihilism in the prose. Why, I wondered, if the guy’s so anti-everything, does he keep bothering to write?
From the vantage point of two decades and thousands of pages of Roth later, I don’t think it’s a bad question. My mistake was asking it rhetorically. If treated as a point of real inquiry, the question affords an opening, a way of reading and being reached by the work. For a writer so generously endowed in the irony department, Roth turns out to be astonishingly earnest. We see this in his excesses — not merely the prolificacy of his output, but the outrageousness of his characters’ offenses, their deeds, appetites, shames and confessions. Steaming along on the twin engines of intellect and humor (and what engines — horsepower through the roof), the novels transport us or run us over or both. His characters sometimes get caught up in a kind of Socratic Möbius strip, endlessly debating one another and themselves in a way that can verge on the tedious, but even then one cannot but marvel at his sheer energy, his unremitting investment in — what? Provocation. Interrogation. The feat of living. This is not a nihilist. This is a writer whose creative work lays bare the act of struggle.
begins. He has a girl he loves, prospective in-laws thrilled to welcome him into their family and solid aspirations of becoming a high school athletic coach. He’s blessed, too, with an awareness of his blessings, a sense not only of gratitude for them but also of the obligation they confer, and it emerges that this sense of obligation is what allows him to withstand his disappointments; indeed, to flourish within his circumscribed world.
He inhabits the role of playground director with a combination of enthusiasm and dignity that makes him, in the eyes of the children, “an outright hero,” and Bucky’s goals are no less exalted. “He wanted to teach them what his grandfather had taught him: toughness and determination, to be physically brave and physically fit and never to allow themselves to be pushed around or, just because they knew how to use their brains, to be defamed as Jewish weaklings and sissies.”
The school playground becomes Bucky’s Fort Dix, his Normandy landing. And when a polio outbreak hits the city, his sense of duty swells: “This was real war too, a war of slaughter, ruin, waste and damnation, war with the ravages of war — war upon the children of Newark.”
Is it impertinent to suggest Roth outdoes himself here by getting out of his own way? This short book has all his brilliance, minus the bluster. And it’s a love story. I’m not thinking of Bucky and his girl, but of the narrator and Bucky. Roth achieves something strange and good here with point of view. From the outset, the narration is evocative of a Greek chorus, at once communal and all-knowing. More than a hundred pages go by before we discover who is telling the story. And even then, until very near the end, I persisted in believing that the narratorwassomehow omniscient, speaking perhaps from beyond the grave, as in another of Roth’s recent novels, “Indignation.” There and here, one feels him exploring what role memory and narrative might play in salvaging meaning from a life.
In the end, we learn that Bucky, who had so wished to serve and to save, has been crippled by his own sense of decency. His eventual determination to disallow himself happiness runs deep; he rebuffs the narrator’s attempts to persuade him otherwise. Yet in the final shining pages, the narrator does restore Bucky to happiness, not by changing the man, but by doing what a storyteller can: conjure a moment from the past and fix it for all time.
By Philip Roth
280 pp. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $26.