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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Consider this dialogue exchange:

“You’re a very attractive woman nonetheless.”

“I’ve never been told that before by a man with a gun.”

Straight out of crime fiction, right? Maybe a hardboiled private-eye novel, or a 1940s film noir. But it’s from The Humbling(2009) by Philip Roth, Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner, arguably the greatest American novelist of the last half-century, and not generally considered a mystery, crime, or thriller writer. That same short novel includes a murder, and at one point the protagonist, actor Simon Axler, is asked by a fellow mental patient to kill her pederast husband. Except by a very broad definition, though, this is not a mystery or even crime fiction. But other recent Roth novels not only include genre elements and devices but cross the line into real, albeit offbeat, examples of the mystery writer’s art.

The alternate history The Plot Against America (2004), in which Charles Lindbergh is elected president on the Republican ticket in 1940, denying Franklin D. Roosevelt a third term and putting the country on a gradual road to fascism, turns mysterious late in the story: Lindbergh, who has spent almost as much of his term in the air as he did in his barnstorming or mail-delivering days, suddenly vanishes while on a flight. The mystery of his disappearance is never solved definitively, but the most fully elaborated possibility (neither rejected out of hand nor presented as the final truth) entails a delightfully ornate conspiracy theory any thriller writer would be proud of.

The three novels that make up The American Trilogy, newly published in this single volume by Library of America, establish Roth’s mystery credentials most persuasively. All three broadly detailed meditations on late-20th-century American life have at their center the ultimate crime of murder. In each book, novelist Nathan Zuckerman, Roth’s alter ego, acts as detective in exploring the complex and tragic life of an enigmatic acquaintance. According to Roth himself (quoted in Ross Miller’s useful section of notes), all three of these otherwise quite different protagonists want to change history, whether society’s or their own, and are ultimately destroyed by the attitudes and the pressures of their times.

American Pastoral (1997) may not be the Great American Novel, but it is at the least a great American novel. Seymour Irving (Swede) Levov, who owed his nickname to fair Nordic features incongruous in the Jewish community of Newark, was a three-sport high school star, then a Marine volunteer in the last days of World War II, idolized by younger boys like Nathan, who, when the novel begins, is a ping pong-playing contemporary of Swede’s misfit genius brother Jerry. Swede subsequently enters his father’s glovemaking business, marries Miss New Jersey, and has a seemingly perfectprofessional and family life. In 1995, Nathan receives a letter with a dinner invitation from Swede, who wants to talk about his efforts to write a tribute to his late father, who died the previous year.  

“Not everyone knew how much he suffered because of the shocks that befell his loved ones,” Swede writes. Nathan has no idea what he means but speculates, “It wasn’t the father’s life, it was his own that he wanted revealed.” The dinner, when it happens, reveals nothing: Swede, wearing his amiable, impassive mask, is cordial and voluble, but guarded. Nathan is left to wonder what the inner life of this paragon of virtue and good luck could possibly be like.

At his 45th high school reunion, Nathan learns from Jerry Levov that his brother has died and is told of the dark spot in Swede’s seemingly impeccable existence: His daughter Meredith was the notorious Rimrock Bomber, a high school student who in 1968 blew up the small town’s general store and post office, killing a beloved local doctor. Nathan decides that he will write about Swede’s life, based on the facts he could discover—speculating, elaborating, and imagining events where necessary—while changing the names and fictionalizing the details prior to publication.

On page 85 of the Library of America omnibus, something remarkable happens. Nathan, dancing at the reunion with an old girlfriend, abruptly departs from the story: “To the honeysweet strains of ‘Dream,’ I pulled away from myself, pulled away from the reunion, and I dreamed. .  .  . I dreamed a realistic chronicle.” In mid-paragraph, the scene changes to a conversation between Swede and his 11-year-old daughter at their summer seaside cottage, and for the remaining 310 pages, Nathan never reappears as anything other than an omniscient third-person narrator.