Philip Roth: Explaining Men

By Regina Weinreich

When Philip Roth died in May, I got some condolence emails. Though I never met the man, people in my life associated me with him. After I read Lisa Halliday’s “Asymmetry,” featuring a fictive author based on Roth in a relationship with a younger would-be writer, I developed a virulent case of banter envy and wished I had known him. That Halliday’s Ezra Blazer was passed over for the Nobel Prize in the novel seemed a delicious inside joke, Halliday having been a younger would-be writer when she and Roth had a liaison. 

When women began to vent in print and in public about their not seeing themselves in Roth’s women, I wondered why they thought they should. Literary constructs do not have to resemble real people, even when they do. Then, my husband’s ex-girlfriend got in touch because her husband was simply disgusted by the backlash, an attack, after all, on a beloved now-dead author. While many people see themselves as characters in Woody Allen movies, I inhabit imagined Rothian scenarios, especially when the ex asked me to write about Roth, to respond to the assault.

Until he died, Philip Roth for me was the greatest living writer. Death being so irredeemably final, I will now have to reconsider that distinction. One time in a conversation with James Frey at a Guild Hall summer gala, he asked me who I thought was the greatest, and I answered Denis Johnson, who remains for me, though he too is now dead, great, but not in the same way as Roth. (Frey, by the way, thought that he himself was. You can see that greatness is a slippery category.) 

Roth could in the space of a page take the reader by the throat, engage you with a character at hand, and situate the context within the immediately historical. Consider, for example, the opening of “The Human Stain”: the way he introduces the character of Coleman Silk within the scandal of a presidential dalliance involving one Monica Lewinsky, tragicomedy of the highest order, zooming in to a relatable ethos. 

His themes of Judaism, anti-Semitism, racism, Freud, the full panoply of American preoccupations, contradictions, obsessions, were mine, most especially what it means to be a man. A bookish girl, I wanted most to understand men, how to emulate and bed men, and comprehend their behavior and values. Roth explored the concept of Menschlichkeit, what it means to be human.

In the beginning for me was “Goodbye, Columbus,” explaining the Jewish men of my time and why they were not paying attention to me, a dark-haired refugee Jew, born out of the displacements of the Holocaust. Roth’s shiksa obsession was formative, for Roth a literary device despite the feminist critique. I took him seriously. How could I not? “Portnoy’s Complaint” was a turning point for both of us. The book that put Roth on the literary map was a blueprint of the male psyche, explaining the erotic, the neurotic, the looming enemy of mother, the maternal womb, how one leaves it and re-enters, the literary equivalent of de Kooning’s women with their sharp teeth. 

But we women had a counterpart in the voice of Erica Jong: the “zipless fuck” of her transformative book, “Fear of Flying,” the image of married sex as having the consistency of Velveeta, her first husband’s hairless balls. Roth and Jong were the yin and yang of the sexual revolution. 

Later on, much of Roth’s fiction, like “Deception,” smacked of easy conceits. I am fascinated that he loved his own “Sabbath’s Theater” the best. I struggled to read it, the masculine in it too esoteric. Men friends like it more than I do. But I can always appreciate the virility of the prose.

Regina Weinreich is the author of “Kerouac’s Spontaneous Poetics.” She lives in Manhattan and Montauk.