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Sex in America, pre-'Portnoy'

Philip Roth may have become famous for the exuberant carnality of Portnoy's Complaint, but he still remembers a very different sexual America.

When Roth was in college in the 1950s, female students had a curfew. Men were not allowed in their rooms. Dances were chaperoned.

"That little world was replicated on one campus after another," says Roth, wearing khakis and a check shirt, chatting at the offices of his New York literary agent.

"This will come as a great shock to young people, but in 1951 you could make it through college unscathed by oral sex."

These days are on Roth's mind again because they are the topic of his 29th book, Indignation, a short novel set in the '50s about a young Jewish man named Marcus Messner who flees the oppressive anxieties of his family in Newark, N.J., for a small liberal arts college in Ohio called Winesburg.

Marcus should feel liberated, but he discovers he has merely traded the illogic of his parents' surveillance for that of the college administration. "He goes from one overseer to another," Roth says.

Marcus clashes with roommates, rages at a college dean and manages to turn his one blessing — a date with a woman sexually ahead of the times — into a source of towering anxiety.

Roth watched the sexual strictures Marcus bristles under change when he became a professor. "I saw (students) going in an out of the dormitory together, and I was shocked."

Talking about these changes, legs crossed, tone professorial, Roth is acting less as a literary Gulliver but rather a man who has watched America change far beyond his own wildest expectations. "The old system was just discarded. Sexual freedom, personal freedom, all the freedoms that have been extended to the generations after mine are extraordinary."

One of the key freedoms Marcus lacks — which most American college students enjoy today — is the freedom from fighting. In 1951, the United States was at war with North Korea and the draft was on.

"With the draft, everybody was involved," Roth says. Marcus' fear of being expelled, called up and sent to die on the battlefield provides the book with a taut wind-up — even though Marcus essentially narrates the book from beyond the grave after this very sequence of events occurs.

Roth experienced some of this worry firsthand. Like Marcus, he spent a year in Newark at a state college before transferring in 1951 to a private liberal arts school, in his case Bucknell, a small university in western Pennsylvania, where ROTC requirements were an hour and a half a week.

"I opted out," Roth says. "Then I was drafted into the army as a private. Had I stayed in ROTC I would have been an officer. The war was over, though, so it didn't make much difference."

Several stories in Roth's National Book Award-winning first book, Goodbye, Columbus, emerged from this period — a period Roth has returned to in another way. This is his fourth short work in nearly as many years.

"I have a feel for this length. Goodbye, Columbus," he says, referring to the title novella of that book, "is this length."

Roth had a good teacher, too: Saul Bellow. "I remember that Saul, at the end of his life, was writing short novels. . . . I remember being fascinated that he who loved the density and complexity of novels, the spinning out of the narrative in all directions, had found this way of condensing."

Bellow has been dead three years now, and Roth feels the loss personally and artistically. "There is no longer anybody to look up to.

"It's just us now," he adds, referring by name to writers of his generation: E.L. Doctorow, Don Delillo, John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, Reynolds Price.

Lacking his elders, keenly aware his time is running short, Roth now rereads. "I think I'm going to reread Moby-Dick," he said, visibly excited at the thought of it. "It's absurd that I haven't read it since college."

About his own writing he remains jovially evasive. Since 1998, Roth has published eight books, a staggering burst for a man between ages 65 and 75.

"I want to have a big, long project that will occupy me until my death," Roth says, his big eyes shining, his expression so deadpan it may or may not be ironic.

"I'm ready for it. I have a 25-year book. And when I'm 100 I will hand it in and then lie down in darkness."

John Freeman is writing a book on the tyranny of e-mail.

Indignation

By Philip Roth

Houghton Mifflin, 256 pages, $26

Sex in America, pre-'Portnoy' 10/11/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 3, 2010 3:11pm]

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