With its first two words, “My father,” Patrimony might startle readers of Philip Roth’s eighteen previous books. Though mothers—particularly in the notorious Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), where the smotherly love of Sophie is a crucial cause of Alexander Portnoy’s complaint—are conspicuous and domineering presences, fathers are absent or feeble figures in much of Roth’s fiction. Yet Patrimony, subtitled A True Story, denies that it is a fiction. It follows The Facts: A Novelist’s Autobiography (1988) and Deception (1990) as the third volume in a loose trilogy of studies in actuality, works in which the notoriously elusive metafictionalist Philip Roth appears under his own name. In Patrimony, a narrative where the father is present from beginning to end, the author abjures the masks of invention for an uncharacteristically straightforward account of the final months of Herman Roth’s life. Absent are the animosity and alienation that poison generational relations in his younger son’s novels and stories.
In fact, an epigraph to Philip Roth’s first novel, Letting Go (1962), anticipated the filial devotion that is the subject and motive of his latest book. According to Wallace Stevens, quoted from his poem “Aesthetique du Mal,”
And the father alike and equally are spent,
Each one, by the necessity of being
Himself, the unalterable necessity
Of being this unalterable animal.
The lines might also have been appropriated for Patrimony, centrally concerned as it is with the fiercely loving, fleeting symbiosis between father and son. Robert Bly’s Iron John happened to be published shortly before Patrimony, and, in his book’s insistence on the fundamental need for men to bond with unruly paternal mentors, Bly was in effect furnishing a floss on Philip Roth’s book. Philip Roth’s aging, failing father is a tenacious, pugnacious figure from whom the son—and the reader—can learn much about living, and dying, about the unalterable necessity of being this unalterable animal.
Retired after forty years of devoted service to the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, where anti-Semitism hobbled his career, Herman Roth is eighty-six when afflicted by partial facial paralysis. Younger son Philip, age fifty-six, solicits several medical opinions, and all confirm the diagnosis of a massive brain tumor, grotesquely termed “benign” because it is a slow assassin. Herman undergoes exploratory surgery—termed “routine” by those performing but not receiving it. With success uncertain and suffering assured, he opts against submitting to further surgery: two fourteen-hour operations that might remove the cancer. He chooses death with dignity over the possibilities of clinging to a reduced, tormented life. Patrimony records the changing relationship between father and son as each faces the inevitability of the older man’s demise. It observes a proud man’s physical deterioration and spiritual stamina during his final twenty-four months, the telltale urine stains and the rage against the dwindling of a self.
Despite the pathos of its subject, the book is rich in unexpected and even comic observation. Driving to his ailing father’s apartment in Elizabeth, New Jersey, Philip gets lost and ends up at his mother’s gravestone. In Manhattan, he is driven by a manic cabbie who, like some patricidal demon, boasts of having knocked out his own father’s teeth. As a famous author, Philip is importuned for help in getting published by an Auschwitz survivor, Walter Herrmann, who has written pornographic memoirs.
Dominating the story and the author’s thoughts and recollections is the loving and overbearing Herman Roth, an old bear who, like his son, must learn to accept impermanence, the process stressed in the title to Philip’s first novel, Letting Go. During Herman’s final...