"Ozzie has become so sacrilegious that the rabbi summons his mother to a meeting and she hits Ozzie in the face. He ends up on the synagogue roof, threatening to jump and demanding that everyone below, including the firemen holding a net, get down on
their knees. They do. Ozzie is now in charge".
There is, in an evolutionary sense, no possible argument which actually favors the existence of religion other than as an 'intellectual' repository of sorts for whatever meritable cultural or historical value that happens to
September 18, 2005 Los Angeles Times
Philip Roth: personal, political and prescient
Book Review by Paul Krassner, former editor of the Realist, author of "One Hand Jerking: Reports From an Investigative Satirist," to be published by Seven Stories Press in November.
Novels and Stories 1959-1962
Goodbye, Columbus; Five Short Stories; Letting Go Philip Roth The Library of America: 914 pp., $35
When She Was Good; Portnoy's Complaint; Our Gang; The Breast
FOR five decades now, Philip Roth has been articulating the consciousness of his readers and revealing the evolution of his own. The sexual mores in his controversial 1959 novella, "Goodbye, Columbus," for example, now seem relatively quaint,
resting quietly somewhere in the graveyard of broken taboos. To celebrate Roth's contribution to our national culture, the Library of America has published two volumes of his early writings. Six additional collections will be published, the final volume
scheduled for 2013, when he'll be 80. Ironically, despite a vast body of work, his chief legacy may well be the generic joke, arising from the 1969 novel "Portnoy's Complaint," inspired by Alex Portnoy's surrender to onanistic obsession in ravishing a
piece of raw liver intended for the family dinner.
Roth's growth seems best described by the slogan that came to the fore in the feminist revolution of the late 1960s and early '70s: "The Personal Is Political." "Our Gang," his spoof of the Nixon administration written in 1971 during
the Vietnam War was blatantly political; Time magazine called it a "manically scurrilous satire," accusing Roth of being "extravagantly hostile"; the New Republic criticized him for making "no effort to disguise" the fact that his target was the
president of the United States.
Actually, Roth was startlingly prophetic about the gang currently occupying the White House. To quote from a speech by his character, Tricky Dixon:
"I will not for a moment hesitate to send our brave American fighting men over the border and into Denmark tonight, if that is what is necessary to prevent our children from having to fight the descendants of Eric the Red in the streets
Portland, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, Norfolk, Wilmington, Charleston, Savannah, Jacksonville, Miami, Key Biscayne and, of course, points west
"Now, quickly, let me make one thing very clear: This will not constitute an invasion, either. Once we have overrun the country, bombarded the major cities, devastated the countryside, destroyed the military, disarmed the citizenry,
jailed the leaders of the Pro-Pornography government, and established in Copenhagen the government currently in exile so that, as Abraham Lincoln said, it shall not perish from this earth, we shall immediately withdraw our troops
. [A] thorough
interrogation is currently under way in the famous dungeons of the castle, in accordance with the rules laid down at the Geneva Convention, to which this country is a proud signatory."
In a 1973 preface to the Watergate edition of "Our Gang" (and in obvious reference to the break-in at the office of Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist), Roth wrote: "How I could have permitted myself to go off on this
bender of cynicism and paranoia is, I fear, something only a psychiatrist can explain. I think I will break into the office of one at midnight tonight, and ask for help." And in a preface a year later, he wrote: "I failed to give any indication
whatsoever of the profanities that apparently punctuate President Nixon's conversation. Indeed, not only did I delete the expletives favored by the President, I even deleted the bracketed phrase 'expletive deleted.' In short, I stand accused by Bantam
Books of taking part in a 'cover-up' of the President's dirty mouth."
My favorite reading experience in the newly published volumes was Roth's short story "The Conversion of the Jews," in which young Ozzie wants to know how Rabbi Binder can call Jews the chosen people when the Declaration of Independence
claims that all men are created equal. The rabbi's attempt "to distinguish for him between political equality and spiritual legitimacy" leaves him unsatisfied. On the subject of the virgin birth, Ozzie asks: "If [God] could create the heaven and earth
and make all the animals and the fish and the light in six days
and He could pick the six days he wanted right out of nowhere, why couldn't He let a woman have a baby without having intercourse?"
Ozzie has become so sacrilegious that the rabbi summons his mother to a meeting and she hits Ozzie in the face. He ends up on the synagogue roof, threatening to jump and demanding that everyone below, including the firemen holding a
net, get down on their knees. They do. Ozzie is now in charge.
"Rabbi Binder, do you believe in God?"
"Do you believe God can do Anything?"
"... God can do Anything."
"Tell me you believe God can make a child without intercourse."
"God ... can make a child without intercourse."
After making everybody say they believe in Jesus Christ ("first one at a time, then all together"), Ozzie addresses his mother: "Mamma, don't you see you shouldn't hit me
. You shouldn't hit me about God, Mamma. You should never hit
anybody about God."
My enjoyment of this story was enhanced by a strong sense of identification, because as a kid, I too had felt compelled to challenge a rabbi. I asked, "If circumcision is a covenant with God, isn't a covenant supposed to be voluntary?"
He replied, "It began as a covenant but it became an obligation, for the parents."
Although my least favorite Roth reading experience was his 667-page first novel, "Letting Go," a couple of situations in it also resonated. A woman is speaking of her daughter: "Michelle was bringing
little colored boys home from
school with her
. She was bringing them into the house for cookies, which is perfectly sweet, except Michelle is an affectionate child
and she was kissing them. On the lips. Well, sweet as it was, it was a problem. It's difficult to explain these
things to children, yet I feel you've got to be realists with them." Back in 1950, when my first girlfriend told me she had dated a Negro, I blurted out, "Did you kiss him on the lips?" I was even more stunned by my question than she was; it would be
necessary to unbrainwash myself from all the nuances of racism I had unconsciously internalized.
In another scene in "Letting Go," a man has arranged for his wife to have an abortion, "and all he had been thinking was jail! Suppose the police should come in before Libby was in the operating room. Couldn't he simply say she was
there for an examination? Couldn't they deny everything? Unless she were already on the table then what? Whom do they put in jail?
He tried to remember accounts of cases reported in the newspapers. Was the boy friend or husband an accomplice?
Through the hectic night, at the center of his imaginings, stood the police." In the '60s, I ran an underground abortion referral service. As a result, I was called before district attorneys in two different cities.
But what turned me off about "Letting Go" were the interminable inner dialogues. Perhaps my impatience can best be explored by inventing one for Roth himself:
"I must decide whether to think in the first or third person. After all, this is about myself, so it should be in the first person. I mean, I am not just one of my own characters. Still, the third person would give me the illusion of
objectivity. But why try to fool myself? I already know it's an illusion. And I am fully cognizant that my angst is trivial, contrasted with the horrors around the globe. Nevertheless, that doesn't stop me. Because my feelings are real, and I must pay
attention to them. But what would be too much attention? When I was an adolescent, I had a severe case of acne, and the doctor told me, 'Don't look at yourself so closely.' Was that wisdom or was it a joke? In my writing, I try to choose my words very
carefully no, make that extremely carefully; oh, wait, I ought not have a word ending in 'ly' followed by another word ending in 'ly' but I don't know whether my own sentences are insightful or silly. For example: 'How could he tell him he was
uncertain about Mrs. Silberman when he was actually uncertain whether or not he was uncertain?' It seemed funny when I first thought of it, but that could simply have been pride of authorship. I must admit, with a combination of guilt, shame and
amusement, that a byproduct of these internal dialogues is an intellectual erection quite literally, without touching, only thinking, I have just given myself a holy hard-on. However, at my age, I have begun to worry that it's really just rigor mortis
setting in, on the installment plan. I recall how my father loved to buy new furniture on the installment plan. He had trouble making decisions too. Could this condition possibly be hereditary?"
In any case, fans of Philip Roth can be grateful that the Library of America, in publishing this handsome pair of collections, has provided them with a genuine literary treasure.