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From Columbus to Portnoy
The education of Philip Roth
Philip Roth
NOVELS AND STORIES: 1959–1962 | 938 pages | NOVELS: 1967–1972 | 786 pages | The Library of America | $35 each

For those of us who devour every new book by Philip Roth — and he churns them out almost at the rate of one a year — the experience of trekking through the Library of America’s new two-volume collection of early Roth is both instructive and surprising, even if you’re revisiting material you’ve encountered before. I read Portnoy’s Complaint in college, when it was still new and shocking, and the Goodbye, Columbus stories and his first novel, Letting Go, in my 20s, but in the light of his later work, they give off different vibrations now. I don’t just mean that, for example, you can see the glimmers of The Plot Against America as early as his audacious short story "Eli, the Fanatic," and of I Married a Communist in the adolescent leftism of Alexander Portnoy, but that the arc of his early work wouldn’t have told you just what to expect of him.

Certainly the Goodbye, Columbus collection, brought out in 1959, was an auspicious debut — confident (one might say cocky), sharp-witted, already trenchant and multi-faceted in its depiction of the psychology and sociology of Jewish-American life, which he immediately established as his special area. It’s also true that in these five stories and a novella you can hear his influences most distinctly: Henry Roth, Delmore Schwartz, Clifford Odets, Saul Bellow. The superbly crafted novella Goodbye, Columbus is the linchpin of the volume, an ironic account of a romance between a working-class boy and a college deb — Brenda Patimkin, one of the first Jewish-American princesses in fiction. Their affair begins with such ease ("it would not take an eagle to carry me up those lousy hundred and eighty feet that make summer nights so much cooler in Short Hills than they are in Newark," writes the narrator hero, Neil Klugman) that Neil is astonished when their class difference dooms it. Perhaps only half-conscious of what she’s doing, Brenda sets it to self-destruct by leaving the diaphragm Neil pressed on her where her mother is sure to come across it and then allows her parents to exert their will over her sexual behavior. (It’s still the ’50s, after all.) But Roth’s taste for the peculiar flavor of Jewish-American exchanges also takes in the precocious Hebrew-school boy struggling to see beyond the boundaries of his lessons ("The Conversion of the Jews"), the con-man GI who exploits his background to gain advantage with officers who are fellow Jews ("Defender of the Faith"), and most vividly the crisis of an assimilated Jew who finds his neighborhood invaded by Hassidim ("Eli, the Fanatic").

You wouldn’t expect Roth to leap from these stories to his first two novels, Letting Go and When She Was Good, which don’t bear much resemblance to each other or to anything else he’s tried since, except in a few satirical passages. Neither is primarily a satire, though When She Was Good — which focuses on how a young woman’s relationship with the ne’er-do-well father she tries to dump out of her life haunts her unfortunate marriage — is perhaps semi-comic. (I confess the tone baffled me.) The mammoth (660-page) Letting Go is a rambling account mostly of a young academic’s inability to keep himself out of the lives of a casual graduate-school friend and his fragile wife, a Jew and a Christian whose relationship has alienated both their families. Part of the problem is that the Herzes’ shaky marriage makes for more compelling reading than anything else in the book — like protagonist Gabe Wallach’s on-again, off-again affair with a single mother, Martha Reganhart, who’s seeking refuge from a difficult workaday life and bitter memories of an abusive ex-husband. Roth tries to go in too many directions (he even includes a fascinating, sometimes brilliant chapter written from the point of view of Martha’s little girl), with too many subordinate characters you don’t have a stake in. But the scenes between Paul and Libby Herz demonstrate an acute ear for tortured, no-exit marital squabbles. The best scene in When She Was Good also shows off Roth’s mastery at constructing arguments — it’s an extended stand-off between Lucy, the main character, and Roy, the high-school beau whose relentless sexual requests finally wear her down. (The result: she gets pregnant and they plunge into an ill-starred union.)

The three works that follow When She Was Good are all notable satires — Portnoy’s Complaint, Our Gang, and the novella The Breast. But they’re pointedly distinct from one another. The woolly, long-winded Our Gang is a sort of Mad magazine approach to Nixon’s presidency, and though it’s very funny and full of bravado — Tricky Dixon is assassinated (the feds can’t locate the perpetrator because so many step up to claim the deed) and winds up in Hell, campaigning against Satan — it’s the least accomplished of the three. The Breast is Roth’s rewriting of Kafka’s Metamorphosis: its protagonist awakes one morning to find himself converted "into a mammary gland disconnected from any human form . . . such as could only appear, one would have thought, in a dream or a Dali painting." Succinct as it is (39 pages), The Breast still has enough chutzpah to make you gasp (just before you crack up), and it must have given many of Roth’s readers what they were looking for after the explosive sexual passages in Portnoy, which had hit bookstands three years earlier, in 1969. In his new form, the narrator hero, David Kepesh, is all sensual desire — he lives for the visits of his girlfriend, Claire, who pleasures him with her tongue while he imagines, but keeps to himself, more extravagant ways in which she might arouse him.

In the incomparable Portnoy, the protagonist’s inability to rein in his sexual urges is presented as the logical consequence of a fiendishly overprotected Jewish childhood. The monstrous Sophie Portnoy is such an invasive and ubiquitous presence in Alexander’s boyish life, "so deeply imbedded in my consciousness that for the first year of school I seem to have believed that each of my teachers was my mother in disguise." "For mistakes she checked my sums," he reports; "for holes, my socks; for dirt, my nails, my neck, every seam and crease of my body. She even dredges the furthest recesses of my ears by pouring cold peroxide into my head. It tingles and pops like an earful of ginger ale, and brings to the surface, in bits and pieces, the hidden stores of yellow wax, which can apparently endanger a person’s hearing." And though he’s less powerful, Jack Portnoy, driven by continual anxiety into a state of unrelieved constipation, shares his wife’s propensity for rendering guilt from little Alex "like fat from a chicken." So as soon as Alex discovers the joys of masturbation, he becomes, in his own words, "the Raskolnikov of jerking off — the sticky evidence is everywhere!" His penis is his "battered battering ram to freedom . . . all I really had that I could call my own." Portnoy, which is shaped as a series of confessions to a shrink, is a protest against repression. "LET’S PUT THE ID BACK IN YID!" cries the embattled Alex, whose most untrammeled sexual escapades fail to resolve his mother issues. Unlike Letting Go (published a mere seven years earlier), this book has only a handful of characters — the Portnoys and, at the end of the line of Alex’s girlfriends, "The Monkey," so nicknamed for her fellatio technique — and all are as vivid as Henry Fielding might have drawn them. It’s one of the great American comic novels, a harbinger of great achievements to come.

Issue Date: September 9 - 15, 2005
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