Philip Roth's death, while I was chopping at the big water of his collected works, some thirty or more books, means that suddenly the opinions of others on this hurricane-force man of letters are plastered all over the place. I especially like this New York Times piece wherein a bunch of novelists, critics, and assorted scholarly types are asked to say a few words about their favorite Roth book. Judging by the number of mentions, it seems there might be a consensus for Sabbath's Theater and American Pastoral being his two best books. I'd have guessed that Portnoy's Complaint would earn more votes, just for notoriety and universal "name recognition," but perhaps among this learned group Sabbath's Theater, next on my list to read, has replaced it as the greatest achievement of "the transgressive Roth." Of course there are many Roths. I just finished Nemesis, the last novel he wrote. I remember one scene in which the protagonist and his love interest have canoed out to an island from the lakeside summer camp where they work and, away from the kids, disrobe in a previously prepared bower before the curtain is demurely drawn--next we know, they're paddling back to camp, very happy with one another. This isn't always how it works in Roth. For example, the teen-aged Alexander Portnoy uses a hunk of liver from the icebox for an idiosyncratic purpose and then has to see it again later that day when it's served for supper.
Nemesis is named by one of the Times's experts. Its main character, an earnest square of a playground director, may remind us of all the other squares whom Roth, creator of Alexander Portnoy and Mickey Sabbath, plainly esteems. These fellows work hard for modest wages, often in a struggling family business, often in the role of the transgressive protagonist's father, and almost always in Newark, New Jersey, specifically the Weequahic section southwest of the main business district, where the Jews lived. The autobiographical aspect is here apparent, which reminds me that Roth also wrote a memoir, Patrimony, about his father, and that it is at least twice-mentioned in the article. Even Alexander Portnoy worked as a public-interest lawyer, and remember, too, the definition that is set out on the very first page:
Portnoy's Complaint: A disorder in which strongly felt ethical and altruistic impulses are perpetually warring with extreme sexual longings, often of a perverse nature. . .