10 Books to Read by Philip Roth

[originally listed at Amazon.com]

1. I Married a Communist (Vintage International): Roth may have intended other books as tragedies; only this one, a whirlpool set in the McCarthy era, delivers, until the wreckage is everywhere and even the death of the harridan draws the reader’s breath. Perfect pitch for cant speech of every sort—from push-button leftist diatribes to romance fiction to the romantic language of American democracy. And even if it goes on three sentences too long, a finale to stand with the best in any national literature.

2. American Pastoral: Reviews made it seem like a cheap if magisterial (i.e., all-seeing, not caring or condescending) satire of the sixties, complete with nice middle-class kid with a complex who blows up buildings, but reviews didn’t touch the sense of detail that animates the book: of marriage-making or glove-making. Perhaps the only actually interesting high-school reunion story in American fiction. And Roth’s most shattering ending—even if it comes at the end of Part 2, with Part 3 still to come. And by the way—why is there a Part 3?

3. The Great American Novel: A lot of Roth’s career has to do with going too far. It’s easier said than done—the goal line keeps getting moved back, then gentility takes over everyone else’s work and the language Roth wants to speak turns incomprehensible. This came at one of those times: an enormous and obscene picaresque that really is about baseball (and also a warm-up for I Married a Communist), with a third major league, an infielder named Nickname, and a pitcher named Gil Gamesh, and “poling one out of the ballpark foul.”

4. Portnoy’s Complaint: Boy meets boy, then boy meets girl of girls. The first attempt to go too far, and what a wipeout it was. Not Roth’s funniest book, but his sexiest.

5. The Plot Against America (Vintage International): Lindbergh defeats FDR in 1940 and the US goes fascist. One writer has already come forward to argue that the true alternative history of the time would have been the election of Wendell Wilkie. But that person wasn’t a novelist; he wasn’t interested in stories, let alone a yarn, a tall-tale, a book written with Mark Twain looking over the author’s shoulder.

6. The Human Stain, read by Arliss Howard with Debra Winger (audio cassette): Whiteface as the real minstrel show, always sounding the minor chord that Constance Rourke called “a hint of defeat.” Worst Roth movie but best audio book; with Howard taking almost all of it, a work of art in and of itself. Not only does Howard find seemingly natural voices and accents for each character, he finds different voices, different beings, within single characters, so that they never hold still—not even those who seem to hold still on the page. Fourteen hours long, unabridged. A heartbreaker at the end, but also transporting: death, sting me again.

7. Zuckerman Unbound (Vintage International): The only Zuckerman-as-active-character novel (as opposed to the listening character of American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain) that gives off more than the feeling of someone who belongs in someone else’s book—because it moves so fast. Still, the scene I’ve never been able to get out of my head is merely the one where the newly rich and famous author goes into a store to get a suit made, because that’s what rich and famous authors are supposed to do. And that’s why the active-character Zuckerman books are flat; they’re about career, just like anyone else’s books.

8. Sabbath’s Theater: Going too far, Part 3: the violations start in the first pages and never flag. It’s not simply that whoremaster-in-his-dreams Sabbath devotes his life to thinking up new violations of decency, but that very nearly every man—every man worth the name—who comes in contact with the dead heroine does, as worship, tribute, abasement, until masturbating on a lover’s grave does seem like a kiss.

9. The Breast: David Kepesh started out creepy and only got creepier through The Professor of Desire and The Dying Animal, both of which are mainly interesting for descriptions of teaching college. But here he had no idea what was going on, and that made him, as a six-foot breast, almost human.

10. Goodbye, Columbus: And Five Short Stories (Vintage International): Boy meets girl—or boy meets money? The best movie (Goodbye, Columbus), with Ali McGraw more desperate and believable than Richard Benjamin, who was too perfect. Will there ever be a good movie made out of a Philip Roth novel? Sure, if George Clooney gets to direct The Plot Against America and casts Bill Pullman as Lindbergh.

Search Philip Roth at GreilMarcus.net

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