My father, Bruce Jay Friedman, was saddened by the news that Philip Roth is gone. He found it disturbing, unexpected, and doesn’t think there is anyone around who will fill his shoes. Roth gave his entire life to what he did.
Backstory. . .
The BJF vs. Roth trope was a slightly annoying subject in my family. Or at least, I’ll speak for myself. It was grating to hear Roth’s name come up, automatically, when someone praised my father. What does Roth have to do with it? They have nothing to do with each other. Why must I hear that echo? A petty annoyance, probably not worth mentioning.
However. . . it came up through the earlier years, like a meme in the 1960s when they were often book-reviewed together, as if they were in competition. By the 1990s, Roth exploded through a 15-year end run, writing just as many books, sweeping every award and outpacing all other novelists. Was Roth the literary Ruth? The doddering Quality Lit establishment, or what’s left of it (Sunday Times Book Review, NY Review of Books, Harold Bloom, the august Academy of Arts & Letters, Negro Digest, whoever the fuck) seemed to think so. They remind me of the audience at an opera recital in a Three Stooges short. My personal literary canon is so different, so at odds with the sensibilities of Times book editors, that we must be living on different planets.
Any novelist comparisons then between my father and Roth never took into account BJF’s primary gift—his mastery of short stories, the quick burst. Professors of literatoor consider the short story a lesser animal than the novel. Precious few might argue that it’s a harder form than the novel. BJF published about 150 short stories (mostly premiered in Playboy and Esquire for 40 years, with the record for most short stories during Esquire’s golden age). He’s had hit plays, hit movies, and published extensive journalism for the Saturday Evening Post on down. These details were never considered when it came to mano-a-mano (or kike-to-kike) comparisons.
And women? After Portnoy, girls sojourned to his doorstep begging to suck his shvantz? No matter how many coeds came to kiss Philip’s tuchas and suck his schvantz, believe me, it would come off like Andy Hardy next to the goddesses of stage and screen who pursued my father. And always spoke of him with affection. The takeaway on Philip implied he was a needy wanker.
The Lit Establishment traditionally emphasized the heft of a book, the door stop factor. A Big Book requires lots of pages. But rare is the fat book that wouldn’t have benefited from having a hundred less. Little consideration is given to the idea that it may be harder to write a great short book (Candide) than a doorstop. Some of Roth’s later books would be stronger if they’d been shorn some 200 pages of mental masturbation—a habit more ubiquitous than physical masturbation in Roth’s oeuvre. What my father might call, “Studying his own belly button lint.” But just who gets to decree which chapters qualify as extraneous self-indulgence? (And imagine how many pages were already cut.)
The editors of Magazine Management, where my father spent 12 years, would have known well what to cut. Writers in the cigar-smoking, hard-typing world of 1950’s men’s adventure magazines were trained to roll up their sleeves and recreate World War II. They didn’t expound on lengthy Victorian-era descriptions of flower pots. Easy on the adjectives, cut to the chase. This was not literatoor, perhaps, but it was the training ground for a hundred writers who shaped the culture to come. Roth was not of that world, but rose from the middle working class through academia. And he wrote too much.
Roth’s pretentions would sometimes manifest during interviews, spouting heavy-lifting thoughts befitting a man of high letters. He discussed his “works,” his “art.” Fair enough, but why do I cringe? This is something my father has intuitively avoided, structuring his prose, and his speech, a notch under that self-conscious “literature” jargon, like referring to people as one (One must wipe their arse. . . ) Quality Lit academics and teachers still eat it up, as if American narrative should maintain faux 19th-century British usage. (Terry Southern, of course, turned these tropes upside down, with his mix of high-Brit-Texan-French-Negro.)
In defending the family’s honor, I would argue that BJF has had a significantly different cultural impact than Roth, particularly stylistic influence over writers. From Stern being the first “Freudian” novel, to the introduction of the Jewish Mother trope in A Mother’s Kisses, the Jewish schlemiel, to the first use of “obscenity” and nudity on the New York stage (Scuba Duba), the first nudity on national TV (Steambath), coining of the term Black Humor, and especially mentoring the great writers in his stable at Magazine Management in the 1950s and early ’60s (epitomized by Mario Puzo). The number of Hollywood scripts that began on his typewriter, then mutated into other people’s films, will never be known. But the movies, done to support children and high living, took a high toll. They deducted literary points.
Roth never hung loose with the midnight cowboys of Table 4 at Elaine’s, where the primary drinkers and thinkers--Mailer, Styron, , Vonnegut, Terry Southern, BJF, George Plimpton, Jerry Leiber, Jack Richardson, David Newman—let off steam several nights a week, after a hard day’s work at the typewriter. This was my father’s table, let there be no mistake. Anyone was welcome, actually--if they knew how to behave. Could Roth hold his own with these men? Or would he have soiled himself, groping some starlet’s bosom while falling to the floor in diarrhetic disgrace, as academics had done before. As even Mailer had done, becoming persona non grata for several years.
Roth seemed cloistered in the halls of academia or in solitude. Not in the bar, on the street. I wondered how Philip Roth didn’t go insane in a Kendall Jenner society. Too brilliant for his own good, but somewhat soul-blind, mourning the death of his worldly pecker.
Roth embedded himself for several days at Screw in 1981, when I was senior editor. He observed Al Goldstein, fictionalized in his novel The Anatomy Lesson as Nathan Zuckerman’s alter-ego. He did active research for novels to incorporate real personalities and their ensuing dramas into his fiction. He didn’t use a tape recorder or take notes. He had total recall of dialog, a handy super power if you happen to be a writer. I remember, at Screw, he performed a perfect imitation of evangelist Jimmy Swaggart—Come to Jesus, come to Jesus, come all over Jesus.
During that week, he only asked about my mother, Ginger. A spoken line or two of hers appeared in his first novel, Goodbye Columbus. Probably from some Greenwich Village party in the ’50s. He didn’t ask about my father, coyly avoiding it, which got my Irish up. A tiffy exchange ensued. I have reason to believe he was intimidated by the size of my father’s arms which, to put it mildly, were not like Saul Bellow’s. End of story.
My father once remarked (off the record), as yet another Roth novel appeared like clockwork: “Can anyone stop this man from writing?” Bruce’s wife, Pat O’Donahue, observed, “If Roth didn’t exist, Bruce would have had to invent him.” Only one remaining award eluded this great American novelist: The Nobel Prize which, unlike Dylan, he surely would have accepted.
Philip “No Nobel” Roth. Yes, he was a towering writer indeed, despite being crowned so by the Quality Lit Establishment. May he wank in peace.
--Josh Alan Friedman