Inside Philip Roth
There’s a crime writer waiting to be identified.
Jun 18, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 38 • By JON L. BREEN
Consider this dialogue exchange:
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.
Wherever you pigeonhole it generically, American Pastoral is a remarkable novel in style, ambition, scope, and theme, a towering work by a great writer. Though Roth sticks to an East Coast Jewish milieu, the story delineates a broader American canvas in the 20th century’s second half: the clashes of generations, the erosion of American manufacturing, the conflict of religions, the civil rights movement, 1960s counterculture and war protest, shifting values and attitudes. The gritty details of institutions and work lives are important to the narrative: The reader learns much about cattle breeding and the Miss America pageant, plus enough details of the glovemaking process to fill a textbook. No one could call Roth a minimalist.
In the early pages, Nathan tries to make sense of the events of his subject’s life. In the balance of the book (almost all from Swede’s point of view), the subject himself is trying to figure out the same thing, along with the truth of his daughter’s crime. Did she really do it? If she did, what was her motive? What in her family life brought her to that point? What could her father have done to prevent it? How did she escape the law? Who helped her? The latter question could have provided a whodunit, but as Roth/Zuckerman chooses to tell it, the reader already knows the answer before all the suspects appear as characters.
In a sense, Roth has given us an American Mystery of Edwin Drood. Charles Dickens, of course, died before he could finish that novel, leading many subsequent writers and theorists to finish it for him. Roth finished his. But everything from page 85 on is a postmodernist fiction-within-a-fiction that may or may not be accurate in its assumptions and speculations. Do we know for certain at that point that Meredith is guilty of the bombing she is assumed to have committed? Do we know who (or who else) was really involved? Do we know exactly what trauma had been visited on the Levov father?
In years to come, a writer willing to take on the challenge could note everything Zuckerman tells the reader about Levov up to page 85 and create an entirely different version of the story. It could be a tragedy (in common with Roth/Zuckerman’s), a comedy, a pure suspense story, an espionage thriller, a fair-play whodunit, or something else entirely.
I Married a Communist (1998) is the shortest and least of the trilogy, but it has its merits. Less explicitly a mystery than its predecessor, it is set in the blacklist period of the early 1950s. Again, the present-day Nathan is searching for the truth about a figure from his youth, a person much more important to him than Swede Levov. Ira Ringgold had been a successful radio actor under the unlikely professional name Iron Rinn, the fourth husband of former silent film star Eve Frame, who has also achieved great success in radio and would eventually sign her name to the supposed nonfiction memoir that gives Roth’s novel its title.
Ringgold is an outspoken supporter of left-wing causes and a strong mentoring influence on Nathan, who met him through his high school English teacher, Ringgold’s brother Murray. The young Nathan had struggled to choose between political ideals and apolitical art. Years later, Nathan questions the nonagenarian Murray for the truth about Ira’s tragic life, and a large percentage of the book is Murray’s monologue. As Murray finishes his account, Nathan comes to learn what role he really played in his onetime hero’s life.
In this novel, as in American Pastoral, the characters and their motivations are the puzzle, a puzzle that is, at least provisionally, solved in a concluding scene quite unlike the summations of classical detective novels (though everything is foreshadowed, the reader can’t glean the full story from the clues provided) but providing some of the same kind of satisfaction. And the final pages, told secondhand by Murray, with the reader knowing what event is coming but not knowing exactly what form it is going to take, bring suspense as powerful as any created by Alfred Hitchcock or Cornell Woolrich.
In The Human Stain (2000), Coleman Silk is a 71-year-old retired classics professor. During the 1995-96 school year at Athena College, he had been teaching a course in ancient Greek literature to 14 students, two of whom had never shown up to class. One day, while calling roll, he asked his other students, “Does anyone know these people? Do they exist or are they spooks?” Unknown to him, both students were African American; his casual reference was taken not as a sarcastic allusion to ghosts but a racial slur, and a scandal erupted that resulted in Silk’s resignation from the faculty.
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.