Even the way Philip Roth announced his recent retirement was cool: “Like the boxer Joe Louis said, I did the best with what I had. Now I’m done.”
After cranking out 31 books in 50 years – a career of consistency and stamina that makes him the Giggs of writing – the undefeated champion of US fiction decided enough was enough. But he didn’t go quietly. Even well into his seventies, Roth wrote about a threesome involving an old man, a drunk young woman and a strap-on dildo. Al Pacino bought the film rights. Hoo-hah, indeed.
He’s always been divisive, though – adored by some, abhorred by others. When he won the 2011 Man International Booker Prize for lifetime achievement, a judge quit in protest. New York Magazine recently conducted a survey of famous writers (including Bret Easton Ellis, Salman Rushdie and Neil LaBute) and 77 per cent voted Roth the greatest living US novelist, with 97 per cent saying he should win the Nobel prize.He might be an octogenarian, but Roth remains the master of the male psyche in all its messy glory. Here are our six suggested places to start…
The down’n’dirty one: Sabbath’s Theater
Even Roth fan Martin Amis balked at the sex and grave-side masturbation in this 1995 novel. Amis said he “flicked through, looking for the clean bits”, in the tale of puppeteer Mickey Sabbath. Yet this dirty old man is like Prospero from The Tempest – his magic fading, raging against the dying of the light.
It says The novel has one of modern fiction’s best opening lines: “Either forswear f*cking others or the affair is over.” And one of the great last lines: “How could he leave? How could he go? Everything he hated was here.”
They said Roth admits “a lot of people hate it but it’s my favourite”. Chad Harbach, author of The Art Of Fielding, agrees: “Sabbath turns out to be Roth’s richest character.”
The hairy-palmed one: Portnoy’s Complaint
Roth’s 1969 breakthrough turned him into the bad boy of the book world. It’s the psychiatrist’s couch confessions of Alexander Portnoy – “a lust-ridden, mother-addicted young Jewish bachelor”, beginning with descriptions of masturbation using props – such as a piece of liver Portnoy’s mother later serves for dinner. It also made serious points about Jewish men feeling torn between their strict families and the sexual liberation of the Sixties.
It says “Enough being a nice Jewish boy, publicly pleasing my parents while privately pulling my putz… Let’s put the id back in yid.”
They saidThe New Yorker dubbed it “one of the dirtiest books ever published”.
The ‘what if?’ one: The Plot Against America
This 2004 novel/memoir is about a boy named Philip Roth growing up in Newark in a richly imagined alternate universe. Aviator Charles Lindbergh is president and keeps the US out of the Second World War. With help from Hitler, Lindbergh persecutes Jews, moving them into ghettos as the country descends into riots. It was interpreted as an allegory of post-9/11 paranoia or an attack on George W Bush.
It says “Our homeland was America. Then the Republicans nominated Lindbergh and everything changed.”
They saidThe New York Times described it as “a terrific political novel… preposterous and, at the same time, creepily plausible”.
The state-of-the-nation one: American Pastoral
After Sabbath’s Theater, Roth reacted by “writing about a virtuous man. I was sick of Mickey Sabbath”. Set in the Sixties, this 1997 novel is about athletics star-turned-businessman ‘Swede’ Levov, whose perfect life is upset when his daughter joins a terrorist group violently protesting the Vietnam War. It won the Pulitzer Prize and a film version is on its way.
It says “You wanted Miss America? Well, you’ve got her, with a vengeance. She’s your daughter! The reality of this place is right in your kisser now! America amok! America amuck!”
They said “The best novel about the American condition at the end of the 20th century.” The New Republic.
The sporty one: The Great American Novel
One of Roth’s forgotten works: this 1973 novel is his only one about sport. Fictional New Jersey side The Port Ruppert Mundys lease their stadium to the US Army during the Second World War, and spend 1943 on the road. Narrated by a sports reporter named ‘Word’ Smith, this semi-satire purports to expose how a Communist plot got their league closed down. The team includes a midget and a pitcher called Spit Baal.
It says “Gil Gamesh is the only pitcher who ever literally tried to kill the umpire, while the ex-con first baseman, The Babe Ruth of the Big House, never hit a home run sober.”
They saidThe New York Times said: “Forty per cent of it is out of control, the rest is an unmitigated triumph.”
The surreal one: The Breast
This Kafka-esque, Will Self-ish 80-page 1972 novella riffs on a boob-obsessed literature professor who, during a beach holiday, idly wishes he had a pair of his own or could even become one. His wish is granted; he metamorphoses into an enormous, 6ft tall, 11-stone breast that lazes in a hammock all day. It has a nipple that can hear, talk and be sexually stimulated but never reach orgasm, forever frustratedly howling “more”.
It says “It began oddly (could it have begun otherwise?) with a mild, sporadic tingling in the groin…”
They saidThe New York Times wrote: “Inventive, funny and, of course, filthy. It’s incredible how smart Roth is for a man so hung up with his you-know-what.”