I’m sitting in the airport, feeling terrible about Philip Roth’s death. I’ve been a devoted Roth reader since I was in high school, bought and read each of his books as they were published. I thrilled to them, learned from them, and loved them. The very worst Roth novel was still better than anything published in a given year. When I was 24 I got in terrible trouble in the English department where I was teaching for giving Portnoy’s Complaint to a college freshman. He loved it. His mother did not.
Over the course of Roth’s long career he kept pushing himself. Not only did he produce a huge body of work, but the work kept changing, growing. If he cared what anyone else thought about it, he didn’t let on. Many of his masterpieces came late. The Human Stain is in my top five favorite books I’ve ever read. American Pastoral is probably sixth. The charm and brightness and rage in Goodbye, Columbus (a collection of stories he wrote in his twenties and for which he won the National Book Award) never faded. The Zuckerman novels were a master class in fiction. The last novel he published, Nemesis, was searing and slim and stood with his best work.
I was in Michigan last summer and went into a little bookstore that carried every single Roth novel, an entire shelf of them, and only one John Updike. I told this to a friend of mine who was a friend of Roth’s. Of the situation, Roth said, “John made the mistake of dying.”
Now Roth has made the same mistake. He’s no longer here to represent his body of work. It’s up to us to keep reading the books. They are not of this time. They will offend a lot of people. They are some of the very best books I have ever known.