Our favorite Philip Roth books — and yours?
You don’t have to be a diehard Philip Roth fan to appreciate The Plot Against America, a what-if novel that imagines an America in which the isolationist and anti-Semitic aviation hero Charles Lindbergh was elected president in 1940, as seen through the eyes of the then 7-year-old Philip Roth. Devotees of the author will recognize his familiar preoccupations — the outrages of recent American history, the rhythms of American speech, and fictional realities spun off the author’s own life. If you want to learn why Roth is considered one of the titans of contemporary American letters, or if Plot Against America sends you to the library for more of his work, here’s our suggested reading list:
Goodbye, Columbus (1959) Still in his 20s, Roth won a National Book Award for his debut novel about a young slacker who falls for a country club girl. Some of Roth’s fellow Jews were less impressed by the book’s unflattering depiction of middle-class Jewish mating rituals. They hadn’t seen anything yet.
Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) An instant scandal and instant success, it’s a book-length rant of a mother-smothered, sex-obsessed (and we do mean obsessed) young Jewish man. Today, it reads as only slightly less shocking but no less hilarious. It’s like The Catcher in the Rye for grown-ups.
The Ghost Writer (1979) With this witty, elegant, and scathing portrait of the artist (Roth alter ego Nathan Zuckerman) as a young man, Roth launched his ”Zuckerman Bound” trilogy. Nathan’s squirmy comic adventures continue in Zuckerman Unbound (1981) and The Anatomy Lesson (1983).
The Counterlife (1997) Roth takes the Zuckerman persona and his own is-it-autobiography-or-is-it-fiction gameplaying about as far as they can go in this hall-of-mirrors narrative, in which Zuckerman’s characters rebel against him over being written about. It’s a display of forbiddingly dazzling technique, but it’s also loaded with genuine moral outrage.
Patrimony (1991) Roth pays homage to his obstinate father without sentimentality in this nonfictional account of his cancer-plagued final year and the old man’s rage against the dying of the light. (A fictionalized Herman Roth lives on as the secret hero of The Plot Against America.)
Sabbath’s Theater (1995) Roth returns to form with this tale of puppeteer Mickey Sabbath, who, despite his advanced age, still has a Portnoy-sized, Viagra-fueled obsession with sex. Sabbath may be nobody’s idea of a role model, yet he’s admirable for surviving on a diet of little more than lust and rage. Filthy, furious, and funny.
American Pastoral (1997) A local hero’s life comes undone when his 1960s-radical daughter commits a violent act of terrorism. With this work, Roth began an aggrieved trilogy of novels that reflect larger events in recent American history — the McCarthy era in I Married a Communist (1998) and the Monica Lewinsky scandal in The Human Stain (2000), for example.
What are your fave Roth books? Are there any that disappointed you?