Like Shakespeare (”second childishness, and mere oblivion”), Philip Roth takes a somewhat dimmer view of old age than the authors of brochures for Florida retirement communities. ”Old age is no picnic, is it?” he remarks to a woman whose ailing, tormented father shares a hospital room with Roth’s ailing, tormented father. But by not joining the conspiracy of euphemism that surrounds the very old, Roth pays them the strongest, most unsentimental sort of tribute. Patrimony is an unsparing and moving account of the last year of Roth’s father, Herman, who, at the age of 86, woke up one morning in 1988 with the right half of his face paralyzed. After a mistaken diagnosis, he was found to have a large tumor in his brain. Both father and son recoiled from the risky operation that would have been required to remove the inexorable tumor, which takes a year of slow torture to do its lethal work. Roth has set himself the task of recovering his father’s essential dignity from the indignities inflicted by the illness, and he succeeds because the rude virtue he attributes to Herman Roth is also the virtue of the book: a ”pitilessly realistic determination.”

The phrase comes up in Roth’s description of how, immediately after his mother has been buried in 1981, his father starts cleaning out her closets and bureaus, throwing her possessions into large plastic bags: ”What good is this stuff anymore?…This stuff can go to Jewish relief — it’s in mint condition.” Roth, stunned, tries to stop him but eventually realizes that this apparent desecration of his mother’s memory is just one more expression of his father’s animating principle — ”his obsessive stubbornness — his stubborn obsessiveness.” Herman Roth, the self-made man with the eighth-grade education, ”was simply doing what he had done all his life: the next difficult job.”

So it is with this stubbornly obsessive book, which honors Roth’s father in his father’s spirit, even as it seems at times to desecrate his memory, to invade the privacy of a dying man (he clearly wouldn’t have wanted the book to be written). For Herman Roth emerges from this ordeal by memoir defined not by his final physical humiliations but by his cantankerous vitality, the iron tenacity that came so easily to him that he relentlessly demanded it of everyone else, including the teenage mugger who robbed him of $23 on the streets of Elizabeth, N.J.: ”Now don’t go out and spend it on crap.” Since vitality is the real theme here, the book can accommodate a good deal of Roth’s bent for angry comedy, his seething sense of the absurd. There are prize sketches of such walk-on characters as a perplexed cabdriving thug and a Holocaust survivor whose memoir of hiding out with lonely hausfraus in wartime Berlin turns out to be hard-core porn. Blunt and devout, comfortless and bracing, Patrimony is a triumph of unflinching memory. A

Portnoy, Zuckerman, & Roth Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) ”During that extended period of rage that goes by the name of my adolescence, what terrified me most about my father was not the violence I expected him momentarily to unleash upon me, but the violence I wished every night at the dinner table to commit upon his ignorant, barbaric carcass. How I wanted to send him howling from the land of the living when he ate from the serving bowl with his own fork, or sucked the soup from his spoon instead of politely waiting for it to cool, or attempted, God forbid, to express an opinion on any subject whatsoever. ”

The Anatomy Lesson (1983) ”His brother’s charge-that Carnovsky had precipitated their father’s fatal coronary hadn’t been easy to forget. Memories of his father’s last years, of the strain between them, the bitterness, the bewildering estrangement, gnawed away at him along with Henry’s dubious accusation; so did the curse his father had fastened upon him with his dying breath; so did the idea that he had written what he had, as he had, simply to be odious, that his work embodied little more than stubborn defiance toward a respectable chiropodist.”

Patrimony (1991) ”In my Zuckerman novels, I had given Nathan Zuckerman a father who could not stand his writer son’s depiction of Jewish characters, whereas fate had given me a fiercely loyal and devoted father who had never found a thing in my books to criticize-what enraged him were the Jews who attacked my books as anti-Semitic and self-hating.”

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