Bancroft: Philip Roth deftly explored male lust, Jewish identity, American history and politics

Philip Roth at his home in New York on Nov. 15, 2012. Roth, the prolific, protean, and often blackly comic novelist who was a pre-eminent figure in 20th-century literature, died on Tuesday night, May 22, 2018, at a hospital in Manhattan. He was 85. (Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times)
Philip Roth at his home in New York on Nov. 15, 2012. Roth, the prolific, protean, and often blackly comic novelist who was a pre-eminent figure in 20th-century literature, died on Tuesday night, May 22, 2018, at a hospital in Manhattan. He was 85. (Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times)
Published May 23 2018
Updated May 23 2018

Philip Roth, one of the most potent voices in American fiction, died Tuesday night of congestive heart failure in a New York City hospital. He was 85.

Mr. Roth was the last man standing of a generation of fiction writers sometimes called "the great white males," writers such as Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer and John Updike who shared a literary emphasis on male identity. Mr. Rothís death came only a week after the passing on May 14 of nonfiction master Tom Wolfe, another major American writer of that generation.

Mr. Rothís enduring themes included male lust, Jewish identity, American history and politics, and the authorís complex relationships with his characters. Author Joyce Carol Oates said of his signature combination of blazing intelligence and bawdy humor that "the essential Roth" was Franz Kafka interpreted by Lenny Bruce.

Prolific and wide-ranging in style and subject matter, Mr. Roth was one of the most awarded of American writers, with a Pulitzer Prize, two National Book Awards, two National Book Critics Circle prizes and three PEN/Faulkner awards, among many other honors. Although he was frequently mentioned as a contender for the Nobel Prize for literature, that one eluded him.

Mr. Roth was born in 1933 in Newark, N.J., and raised in the middle-class Jewish neighborhood of Weequahic, a setting he would return to often in his fiction. He graduated from Bucknell University, earned a masterís degree from the University of Chicago and began publishing fiction in the mid 1950s.

His first short fiction collection, Goodbye Columbus and Five Short Stories, won the National Book Award in 1960 ó and aroused such furor among some Jewish readers that he once fled a discussion of it at Yeshiva University and vowed never to write about Jews again. (That vow didnít last.)

That was nothing compared to the storm that greeted his 1969 novel Portnoyís Complaint. It was not only a stylistic breakthrough ó an exuberantly obscene monologue by a young Jewish man talking to his therapist ó but a sensation for its subject matter, Alexander Portnoyís obsession with women (especially gentile ones) and masturbation. The book made Mr. Roth a celebrity as well as a bestselling author.

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In her appreciation of Mr. Roth for the Paris Review, noir novelist Megan Abbott (You Will Know Me) recalls first reading him when she was 15: "His books were smart and dirty, and until then, I didnít know you could be both."

Many of Mr. Rothís novels focused on the nature of identity, with characters who seemed to be versions of himself, such as Nathan Zuckerman, the protagonist of nine books, and David Kepesh, who appeared in three, including The Breast, Mr. Rothís 1972 foray into surrealism, in which Kepesh transforms into a 155-pound female breast. Some of Mr. Rothís books include fictional characters with his name; Operation Shylock has two Philip Roths.

His characters were sometimes criticized as misogynists, but Mr. Rothís approach was complex: His characters often objectified and even mistreated women, but he also explored the damage that behavior caused.

Mr. Roth married twice. His first wife, Margaret Williams, died in 1968. He and his second wife, actor Claire Bloom, divorced in 1994.

Politics, another recurring theme, were front and center in The Plot Against America. In this chilling alternative history novel, the charismatic pilot and Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh is elected president in 1940, bringing overt fascism and anti-Semitism to the United States. Mr. Roth sets it in his childhood home town and gives its characters his own name and the names of his family members. The novel was disturbing when it was published in 2004; it has recently been called prescient.

In 2010, Mr. Roth did something extraordinary among writers: He announced that he was done writing. After his 22nd novel, Nemesis, was published, he decided, he said, borrowing a quote from boxer Joe Lewis, "I did the best I could with what I had."

"After that, I decided that I was finished with fiction," Roth said in a New Yorker interview. "I donít want to read it, I donít want to write it, and I donít even want to talk about it anymore.

He appears to have meant it, although he did spend much of his time since then working closely with literary biographer Blake Bailey, who has written lives of John Cheever, Richard Yates and Charles Jackson.

Fiction, though, wasnít done with Mr. Roth. In a deliciously Rothian twist, one of the most talked-about books of 2018 so far is Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday, a friend of Mr. Rothís. One of its central characters is a young editorial assistant at a New York publishing house who has an affair with Ezra Blazer, a much older Jewish novelist and a brilliant, funny literary icon who bears a much more than passing resemblance to Mr. Roth.

In that novel, after the Austrian writer Elfriede Jelinek wins the Nobel in 2004, a fan tells him, "Blazer! You were robbed!"

Times wires were used in this report. Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.