You’re at a restaurant for dinner and order salmon, with lemon butter sauce on the side, and lightly steamed vegetables. The waiter brings you a plate of roast beef and mashed potatoes, slathered with gravy,. A few limp string beans peek out from under the white and brown mush.
You say, “This isn’t what I ordered.
The waiter says, “You wanted the salmon.”
“That’s right, with lemon butter on the side, vegetables lightly steamed.”
“And that’s what you got.”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Yes, you did.”
“Are you crazy? You gave me meat.”
“Where? Where do you see meat?’
“On the plate,” you point. “There.”
“That’s not meat. It’s fish.”
“What? Get the manager.”
The waiter shrugs and leaves. A few minutes later, he comes back with the manager.
She says, “Is something wrong?”
“Yes,” you say. “I ordered salmon, sauce on the side, with lightly steamed vegetables, and your waiter brought me this.”
The manager looks at the waiter, then at you. “So what’s the problem?”
You growl, “This isn’t salmon.”
“Yes it is.”
“Smell it,” you lift the plate, “and tell me if it smells like salmon.”
The manager leans over. Sniffs. “Seems fishy to me.”
The manager sighs, “how about if we bring you something else?”
“Fine.” You think for a minute. Then, suddenly, feeling very clever, you say, “Bring me the roast beef.”
“With mashed potatoes and gravy?”
“Yes. And string beans, well done.”
“Very good.” The manager smiles, and both she and the waiter disappear.
Twenty minutes go by. A good sign, you think. They’re making your meal to order. You’re staring to feel better…
…until the waiter reappears, proclaiming, “Beef!!” and sets the saddest, slimiest salad you have ever seen in front of you.
There are these bones, you see, almost 32,000 of them, strung together in a fairly reasonable order.
I think they will function well. All the joints are properly connected, in the right places—foot, ankle, shin, knee, and so on. It took a bit of effort. A few bones didn’t seem to fit, and had to be moved. Bones do have their logic.
And now that they’re properly fashioned, as bones should be, they look, well, skeletal.
They need padding.
I can’t put a suit or a dress on them yet. It won’t hang right. A skeleton need padding first, and then layers.
There’s a long list beside me, getting longer by the minute. I leave the desk, and five new items for the list occur to me, and five more, which will layer nicely on those bones.
But for now, I plan to let them hang around unbothered for a couple of weeks, so they can get used to their assembly, settle in to their identity.
I vowed not to return until I had news about some piece, or poem, or what-have-you being published, knowing that at the rate I finish work and submit, that could be years…
…but then Philip Roth died.
I came to Roth’s work through a friend, who handed me a copy of The Ghost Writer and insisted I read it. Since the friend had also been my composition teacher in graduate school, I didn’t waste any time in getting to the assignment, and even took the book with me when I went home to visit my parents several days later.
When my father saw what I was reading, he said, “Roth? He’s anti-Semitic, isn’t he?”
My father had never read any of Roth’s work.
I said, “I don’t think so. Read the jacket.” I handed the book to him.
After reading, he seemed interested. The next day, I bought him a copy.
He finished reading it while I was visiting, and loved it.
I suspect Roth found other new readers with The Ghost Writer, a tale in which the author/protagonist’s notorious anger is replaced by a yearning so potent it bleeds off the page. It is, at its core, about the love of story and storytelling, the need to create, and the search for redemption through creation.
So, It was no accident that my former teacher—a composer and artist—loved the book. Nor was it any accident that my father—a linguist and writer— loved it, or that so many people who love storytelling have loved it, too.
My friend, my father, and I went on to read all of Roth’s Zuckerman books as they were released.
It wasn’t until I was teaching that I finally read Portnoy’s Complaint. One of my students mentioned it in class, and another burst out laughing, saying, “Even the title gets me going.”
I never taught Portnoy, but I did teach The Ghost Writer, numerous times, as well as Operation Shylock, Deception (a work which has continued to fascinate me), Goodbye, Columbus, and, of course, Defender of the Faith.
I will say that every time I taught any of these works, students came to class with plenty to say about them, which was not always the case with other literature we studied.
When my mother was getting on in years, she confessed that she had grown up in a Kosher house. We never kept Kosher, and ate trayf at home and in restaurants, so I was confused. Besides, I had seen my grandmother eat all kinds of trayf. My mother shook her head. “She’s always eaten it, just never at home…at least, not until the day I bought a pound of bacon and fried it in one of her pans.”
There’s an anger that brews when you’re subjected to a set of rules and standards, only to see them broken by their makers and enforcers.
And if you’re a writer, you turn that anger into prose and take aim, pitting good against bad, reverence against hypocrisy, knowing, hopefully, that readers might take offense.
I know with absolute certainty that Shadows and Ghosts would not have been written without Roth’s influence.
I never met the man, but the lessons I learned from his writing are all over mine.
I’ve seen the anger, the “anti-Semitism,” the misogyny (not my favorite books), and I’ve also seen a writer who, even at his most offensive, is unflinchingly and brutally honest about his experiences and feelings.
Sadly, my father never spoke much about his relationship with his father, other than to relate a couple of hilarious anecdotes. (The time my grandfather threw my father’s student violin out a window comes immediately to mind. Anyone who has ever suffered through a beginning violin student’s practice sessions will sympathize.) Even though I wished he had said more, I didn’t press him. My grandfather died of cancer when I was a baby, and I sensed my father was still pained by the loss. However, when he read Patrimony, he opened up a bit, enough to let me know that Roth’s remembrances of his dying father resonated in a profound way.
Honesty in writing, the kind that clings to the bone, is a rare and difficult quality; it can disgust and inflict pain, but it can also provide understanding and solace.
In the past year, while I’ve had much to say about a number of issues and events, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not the time to speak, as tempers are running high, and I so often run afoul of popular opinion.
Frankly, who needs the tsuris?
But Roth’s legacy has given me pause, something to mull over as I crawl back into my comfortable silence…