Beyond the printed page Essay: While Philip Roth's "crawl through life" has produced 21 books that entertain (and shock), his work is never viewed in a vacuum.

November 17, 1995|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

Philip Roth has won the National Book Award for his 21st book, "Sabbath's Theater." And why not? It may not be the best book of his 36-year career, or even his second-best, as his detractors will surely point out, but his body of work is certainly worthy. The awards do, which is why no one should make a fuss. Yet they will.

When it comes to Mr. Roth, it's never just about the work. People complain that he's anti-Semetic, misogynistic, pornographic or just too successful. There is carping about his large advances and his tendency, in recent years, to switch publishers in search of those advances. He writes almost-fiction disguised as non-fiction ("The Facts") or fiction he insists is true ("Operation Shylock.")

No, the cavils are never just about the work. Which is odd, because Mr. Roth's life has been about nothing else.

Born in 1933 in Newark, N.J., he has lived the life of a student-reader-writer, with remarkably few dramatic events to draw on for his fiction. His only experience outside the writing life came during the Korean War, and even then he was at home in America, typing.

From the Army, he returned to the University of Chicago, where he had already earned an M.A. His short stories had begun

appearing in magazines and, in 1959, he published "Goodbye, Columbus." His debut won the National Book Award the next year, besting a field that included Saul Bellow.

His work was assailed from the beginning. "Defender of the Faith," one of the stories in "Goodbye, Columbus," led to meetings with representatives from the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith after it first appeared in the New Yorker. Mr. Roth believes it would not have happened if the story appeared in other, smaller magazines.

"And had that happened," he writes in his version of a memoir, "The Facts," ". . . had 'Goodbye, Columbus' had the innocuous cultural fate of a minor critical success -- it's likely that my alleged anti-Semitism might never come to pervade the discussion of my work, stimulating me to defend myself in essays and public addresses and, when I decided to take things more aggressively in hand, to strike back at accusations that I had divulged Jewish secrets and vulgarly falsified Jewish lives by upping the ante in 'Portnoy's Complaint.' "

Up the ante he did. "Portnoy's Complaint" came out in 1969, after two novels -- "Letting Go," the obligatory account of academic life, and the much underrated "When She Was Good." Even by today's standards, "Portnoy" is a shocking book. It also is a comic masterpiece, one long whine from the psychoanalyst's couch.

"Portnoy's Complaint" ushered in an odd era for Mr. Roth, in which he produced "Our Gang," a novel about the Nixon administration, "The Breast," about a man who becomes just that, and "The Great American Novel," which takes baseball as its subject.

Then, in 1979, after three more books, came "The Ghostwriter," the beginning of the Zuckerman series. Often called a perfect novel, "The Ghostwriter" begins the saga of Nathan Zuckerman, a young writer from Newark who has dismayed his family with a story perceived as anti-Semetic. (Herman Roth was a more supportive parent, responding "What outcry? Everybody loved it," about "Defender of the Faith.")

With a lesser writer, such an autobiographical story could be like a gossip column full of blind items. One would try to guess identities and demand petulantly "Is this true?" With Mr. Roth, such questions never occur. And when he finally published "The Facts" in 1989, it was a curiosity at best, like the annotated "Lolita," complete with correspondence from his doppelganger, Zuckerman.

"Having argued thoroughly against my extinction, in some eight thousand carefully chosen words, I seem only to have guaranteed myself a new round of real agony!" his alter ego concludes. "But what's the alternative?"

With "Sabbath's Theater," Mr. Roth has provided a glimpse of the alternative. Here is a new character, a puppeteer instead of a writer, sour and haunted by death. One hopes this switch hearkens the next stage, one as rich and surprising as the other twists in Mr. Roth's career. Mainly, one hopes for more.

The cynical view is that Mr. Roth won the National Book Award again because his career is almost over and his health is poor. He and the poetry winner, Stanley Kunitz, 90, were the oldest in their fields, with three years on, respectively, Stephen Dixon, whose "Interstate" received much better reviews than "Sabbath's Theater," and the ever-astonishing Josephine Jacobsen. The argument is that an award for "Sabbath's Theater" is like an Oscar for John Wayne.

Except -- Philip Roth can really write. "Crawl through life then -- if I have a life left!" Alexander Portnoy raves at the end. "And all I wanted was to give a little pleasure -- and make a little for myself. Why, why can I not have some pleasure without retribution following behind like a caboose! Pig? Who me? . . . and I am whimpering on the floor with MY MEMORIES! My endless childhood! Which I won't relinquish -- or which won't relinquish me! Which is it!"

His readers do not care if Mr. Roth has his memories, or his memories have a stranglehold on him. He has given a great deal of pleasure and, if the fates allow, will provide much more.

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