Roth, Philip (Vol. 3)

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Roth, Philip 1933–

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A prominent American novelist and short story writer, Roth writes witty, often outrageous, satire. Highly praised for his artistic use of the middle-class Jewish idiom, Roth has, in more recent fiction, satirized the Protestant midwest, the Nixon administration, and baseball. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Philip Roth's collection of short stories [Goodbye, Columbus] is the year's [1959's] best fiction work on Jewish life in America, and illustrates a neglected literary principle: sweet and sour are the uses of irony. Sweet? Irony, particularly as Roth uses it to pour ridicule and tribute on his characters, gives the writer a tighter grip on life as well as a sustaining literary medium, and takes him on a sentimental journey to a past so timeless it encroaches on our future. Sour? Such irony as Roth's exposing the foibles of self-conscious, newly-minted American Jews, lets the writer needle society for its sickness (albeit Roth contracts the infection himself), furnishes his stricken ego a defense mechanism to fight back in anger, and discolors everything (the sick, the well, the medicine, the poison) into a blurred, disquieting, but entertaining smear….

Like Bernard Malamud, Roth relates the struggle of the poor pilgrims fleeing the ghetto for the utopia of American-style Success and Acceptance. Whether or not his wayfarers realize that they are gambling their souls on their perilous journey, most of them fall ignominiously by the temptation-crowded wayside. And those who still manage to plod onward are generally so bruised by their earlier encounters that they are unfit for any new rigors, and thus are hardly any better off than the fallen ones. In Roth's view every Jew is still a Wanderer, each adjustment is a destructive compromise. But what soul-journeys he describes!…

No other current fiction work dealing with Jewish life in America has come anywhere near Roth's achievement, which ranks easily with National Book Award-winner Bernard Malamud's "The Magic Barrel." Despite Roth's lapse in taste and his seamy pictures of life, he has brought more depth of feeling and a higher degree of intelligent expression to his literary photography than has anyone else for the past year or more.

Roth's talent is so powerful, on those occasions where he exercises it properly, that he has it in him to go very far as a serious American writer. All he needs now is a little more self-analysis, experience with different kinds of people, and relaxation when writing, for he is still somewhat ill at ease with his material.

Samuel I. Bellman, "Irony: Sweet and Sour," in National Jewish Monthly, December, 1959, pp. 39-40.

Although there are "redeeming social values" in generous profusion—of narrative drive and comic vitality, of lunatic wit and that murderous precision of social observation that has always been Roth's birthright—let's not distract ourselves with apologetic cant. Portnoy's Complaint is a desperately dirty novel; and that, like it or not, is its chief joy and aesthetic principle. In order to impart some sense of its central and pervasive quality, one would have to scald this page with an assaultive spilling-out of all the famous words and phrases which—despite all fatuous (and disingenuous) disclaimers about how "boring" they are in their insane and brutal repetitiveness—have never lost their ancient power to shock and appall, repel and magnetize, disgust and delight, disclose and illuminate, for better or worse; which is to say they have never, in the hands of a master, lost any of their old power to perform the full work of a literary language.

Saul Maloff, "Tropic of Conversation," in Commonweal (reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), March 21, 1969, pp. 23-4.

[Portnoy's Complaint ] is (like almost...

(The entire section contains 6294 words.)

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