Roth had already achieved a place in contemporary American fiction when The Great American Novel was published. Goodbye, Columbus (1959), had been made into a film, and Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) had been a best-seller several years earlier. This novel is quite different, however, from earlier ones, in that autobiographical elements are less prevalent, and the satiric elements more pronounced.
Possibly the greatest significance of this novel lies in the author’s attempt to explore the notion of the American epic. It has long been a commonplace among critics and authors that American novelists have been especially desirous of creating a major American novel that would stand with works such as Homer’s Odyssey or Dante’s The Divine Comedy as exemplary of the best work of an age and a civilization. Roth pokes fun at this notion throughout the novel, but he is careful to include in his own work all the elements one might expect to find in an epic about America. He is particularly conscious of the epic tradition in literature, including most of the elements of the classical epic—modified to meet his contemporary needs.
Roth’s book is another reminder that sports can be the subject of serious literature, and that in sport Americans exhibit freely the characteristics—both good and bad— that make them distinct among peoples of the world.