“This man has come all the way from Australia to pay tribute to Philip Roth,” said the president of the synagogue, and I didn’t have the heart to tell the truth, that I’d come to Newark from three hours away, not the other side of the world. It might have cost me a free lunch, as well as the company. There were women whose mothers had gone to the very same salon as Philip Roth’s mother, and a convivial local history buff named Rob Steinbaum, who was planning a tour of Roth-related landmarks. He had the decency to mistake my arrival for a sign. It helped that I wasn’t the only interloper at the service: there was also a tweaker, drawn in by the singing, who stood twitching politely in the pews until the ark doors opened, and he looked on the Torah scrolls with beatific awe, having his own high holy day.
It was the middle of National Masturbation Month, which was appropriate. Going to temple was not. Rob Steinbaum said that a few years ago Roth himself had guest-starred on the Roth landmarks tour, riding on the bus with everyone else. He wouldn’t set foot in a Newark synagogue though, joking instead that he would sneak back that night and set it on fire. This allergy to religious Judaism has persisted post-mortem. “He has asked,” Rob said, “to be buried in a college cemetery in Connecticut.” Ground doesn’t come much more goyishe.
Readers outside America tend to think of Roth as a New York-ish novelist, without drawing the distinction between Newark and New York, or even New York and New Jersey. But those differences are the key to his literary territory. Unlike New York, the Newark he grew up in was suburban, assimilatory and anti-cosmopolitan. “Jewish parents and their children at the southwestern corner of New Jersey’s largest city talked to one another in an American English,” he wrote in The Plot Against America. Not “like the dialects famously spoken across the Hudson by our Jewish counterparts in the five boroughs”. Far from the literati, the number of books in his childhood home ranged from none to three.
Before leaving I’d been talking to my landlady about Roth. “I’m a New Jersey Jew too,” she said, after hearing the news. “The difference is that I got over it.” People often say Roth “didn’t get over it” the way John Updike didn’t get over Massachusetts, or James Joyce didn’t get over Dublin. But these analogies don’t capture the weird proximity of his half exile. The equivalent would be Joyce writing Ulysses in Wicklow instead of Zurich. Only a river separated Roth from his birthplace, and it was destruction, not distance, that stopped his return. Other cities burned in race riots during the “Long, Hot Summer of 1967”, but few burned with the heat that enveloped Newark. Roth’s appointed biographer, Blake Bailey (he fired the first guy), told me the place Roth remembered is as vanished as Atlantis.
The “appetite” Roth found is still there, though: dangerous and creative, wounded and resurgent. Newark is also cheerfully corrupt. “That’s impressive,” I said, pointing to City Hall’s golden dome, as Rob took us touring. It was, he says, a “gift” from a grafting businessman, and calling someone an “indicted New Jersey mayor” is almost a tautology. Those streets where the riot started are still spare and hollowed half a century on. I saw a member of a black church called the 12 Tribes of Israel hold a sign that said “America’s Destruction is at Hand”. The “again” was implied.
Washington Park, mentioned in Goodbye, Columbus is still there, so too the “tragic and fatherly” Lincoln statue from I Married a Communist and Portnoy’s Complaint. But the citizens who peopled Roth’s world are gone, out to the Jersey suburbs. Only three synagogues retain congregations, and his suburb, Weequahic, lost all but 500 of its 30,000 Jews in less than 30 years. His house – now covered in eyesore crazy-stone cladding – stands on a corner renamed Philip Roth Plaza. A woman called Rhonda Hughes lives there. She prefers Ralph Ellison to Roth, but is patient with stickybeakers: Scandinavian documentary makers, lesser writers, tourists too spooked to get out of the car.
“My friend went to Weequahic High,” she says, “and she remembered Philip Roth because they’d studied a book about masturbation. I was like masturbation, really? In English class?” A woman on a Roth tour would not look into the basement windows, because, she said, she “didn’t want to know what went on in there”. That’s the legacy of Portnoy’s Complaint, sometimes called the best novel about masturbation ever written. What is, I wonder, the second best novel about masturbation ever written? After fifty years, Roth’s book is still an isolate, and made its author so notorious he joined the Famous American Literary Recluses involuntarily. J.D. Salinger never had people shouting “Get your hand off it!” at him on New York City streets.
Portnoy’s had as much in common with stand-up comedy as literature, and the defence of “literary merit” meant it could be filthier, too. Even the censor who banned it in Australia admitted it was an “excellent satire”. Lenny Bruce and co. now sound like not-so-excellent satire, so hip they could be speaking another language. Roth found an argot that lasted almost too well, a universal tongue to describe the kind of desire so abstracted it collapses in on itself. Like Jerry Lewis, Roth is big in France, where it’s hard to tell where literature ends, and middle-aged male horniness begins.
His fame in the 1960s and 1970s was sex fame, which is one of the worst kinds. He dedicated the rest of his writing life to building a reputational counterweight to The Book of Onan, shoring up a different sort of seminal status. And what dedication: industry and asceticism it’s better for other writers never to find out about. “Fifty years in a room silent as the bottom of a pool”, he called it. Thirty-one books, many of them composed at a stand-up desk, with a regimen that at one stage involved shouting “Attack! Attack!” into a mirror. Otherwise, you felt, his place in the literary pantheon might have been up the back, wearing a raincoat.
A variant masturbatory strain persisted in the books, some critics thought. “He had a kind of fetish for what men do when there’s nothing else to do,” his friend Liz Del Tufo told me, and his self-exploration could feel as muggy as basement windows. There were periods thick with the squalid confines of alter egos, and the women they don’t get along with. At the peak of auto-scrutiny, Philip Roth published an interview of Philip Roth interviewing Philip Roth.
There was enough recursion that even the books themselves got thinly veiled autobiographies: Portnoy’s became Carnovksy in the Zuckerman trilogy. In Zuckerman Unbound, the Jewish admonition “you’re killing your father” becomes so literal that Zuckerman’s dad reads Carnovksy in hospital and kicks the bucket, the word “Bastard” on his lips. “You have killed him, with that book,” says Zuckerman’s brother. But back in real life, Roth senior was handing out signed copies of Portnoy’s to complete strangers – signed, that is, by himself, “Philip Roth’s father, Herman”.
It was Herman, not Philip, who took the title the “bard of Newark”. “That really rich Newark stuff isn’t my story – it’s his,” Roth recounted. Roth said that his “foot-soldier” salesman father “brought Newark into our house every night. He brought it in on his clothes, on his shoes – literally on his shoes. He brought it in with his anecdotes, his stories. He was my messenger out into the city … You mustn’t forget anything – that’s the inscription on his coat of arms. To be alive, to him, is to be made of memory – to him if a man’s not made of memory, he’s made of nothing.”
Roth conceded that his memory of childhood was no richer than anyone else’s; the difference was that he had Charles Cummings. Cummings, a local historian and self-described “Newarker by choice” knew every secret of the city, and acted almost as a location scout for Roth. He would provide research files, investigate glove factories, or find a vintage photo of a policeman’s buttons to furnish a description. They walked together, sometimes into the sort of neighbourhood where strangers get asked if they’re lost.
Rob takes me to visit the statue of Cummings in a city park, where Roth’s eulogy for his friend is set in stone. “One hot day,” Rob says, “Roth told Charles that he was panting so much that he needed to lose weight. ‘If you lose 50 pounds, I’ll buy you a fancy suit,’ he told him. And Charles did it.” So did he buy the suit? “No. And he must have felt guilty, because he gave a big cheque to help build the statue.” Today, also a hot day, a homeless man has placed ranch dressing and a salt-and-pepper shaker on the plinth in accidental tribute.
It was memory that made Roth give up writing five years ago – at 80, he realised that he could no longer carry a book in his head, and so became a prolific and ranging reader instead. Helen Garner was one of the last authors he read, and he read her with admiration.
But before then, just before he retired, the day the plaque on his old house was unveiled, there were doubts whether Philip would show. (He could be a curmudgeon.) He not only came, but came in a limousine, Charles Cummings in tow. The then mayor of Newark, Sharpe James, read this passage from The Counterlife:
If you’re from New Jersey, and you write thirty books, and you win the Nobel Prize, and you live to be white-haired and ninety-five, it’s highly unlikely but not impossible that after your death they’ll decide to name a rest stop for you on the Jersey Turnpike. And so, long after you’re gone, you may indeed be remembered, but mostly by small children, in the backs of cars, when they lean forward and tell their parents, “Stop, please, stop at Zuckerman – I have to make a pee.” For a New Jersey novelist that’s as much immortality as it’s realistic to hope for.
For the mayor, the recital became a party piece, performed for just about anyone who walked through his office door (at least until he was convicted of fraud). Roth, who had missed out on the Nobel Prize again (it always seemed to be narrowly), listened. He was moved. “Today, Newark is my Stockholm,” he said, “and that plaque is my prize.” He is Newark’s prize too, and some immortality, New Jersey style, is fitting for a man made of memory, now made of nothing.
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“This man has come all the way from Australia to pay tribute to Philip Roth,” said the president of the synagogue, and I didn’t have the heart to tell the truth, that I’d come to Newark from three hours away, not the other side of the world. It might have cost me a free lunch, as well as the company. There were women whose mothers had gone to the very same salon as Philip Roth’s mother, and a convivial local history buff named Rob Steinbaum, who was planning a tour of Roth-related landmarks. He had the decency to mistake my arrival for a sign....