The Magazine

Inside Philip Roth

There’s a crime writer waiting to be identified.

Jun 18, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 38 • By JON L. BREEN
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The misunderstanding that gets Silk branded a racist may be absurd, but it’s also sadly believable in the climate of political correctness and administrative timidity that exists on university campuses. Silk had made enemies in his previous job as dean of faculty, and he blames his wife’s death on the stress of the controversy. When neighbor Nathan Zuckerman declines to write his story, Silk determines to do the job himself. An affair with 34-year-old cleaning woman Faunia Farley improves Silk’s mood, and he puts aside his overwrought manuscript. But new scandal erupts when the affair becomes known, and he receives a poison-pen letter in the handwriting of Delphine Roux, his former department chair and a French-born intellectual feminist. (Contemporary novelists are often accused of disdaining plot, a charge that can’t be leveled at Philip Roth.)

As in the two previous novels, Zuckerman tries to figure out his friend’s odd history, sometimes imagining scenes and events to fill in the gaps and explain the main, often tragic, events. This time, the detective-story framework is even more striking. 

A major secret about Silk that is revealed fairly early has often been tipped in reviews, this not being a mystery novel (at least officially) and literary reviewers not worrying much about spoilers. But it’s a shame because it’s such a well-managed and subtly clued surprise. Another plot reversal comes by way of one of the most timeworn mystery devices, the overheard conversation. Accusations of murder occur throughout: Silk believes that his enemies had, in effect, murdered his wife, and Farley’s Vietnam-veteran husband accuses her of murdering their children, who had died in a fire.  

Nathan’s status as sleuth is underlined most explicitly when he quizzes a policeman about the details of an accident and even likens himself to an amateur detective. One character asks Nathan if he writes whodunits, and another tells him that she hasn’t read his novels, sticking mainly to English mysteries. The final scene is a suspenseful, frightening, and generally astonishing variation on standard detective-novel denouement.

The title is explained as a reference to wild animals brought up by people and rejected by their fellows in the wild, a metaphor that applies in different ways to several of the characters. Again, specialized backgrounds (including academia, dairy farming, boxing, orchestral rehearsal, social rehabilitation of traumatized veterans, bird culture, ice fishing) are limned in detail.

No one should approach these three novels expecting a conventional mystery or detective story. But it would be foolish to deny that the techniques and strategies of suspense fiction can strengthen structural underpinning, and enhance emotional resonance, in service of serious literary themes and insights. Many celebrated writers have recognized this, from Dickens and Mark Twain to Joyce Carol Oates and John Updike, but none has approached the job quite like Philip Roth.

 

Jon L. Breen is the author, most recently, of Probable Claus