My Spring Break with Philip Roth

Article excerpt

At the end of 1995, I briefly dropped out of college. It was an unpleasant time, to say the least. I kept asking myself who I was and, foolishly, desired answers. When I returned to school six months later I thought it might be good to meet some different people. So for spring break 1997 I climbed into a truck with a bunch of new friends for an excursion to the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon and Death Valley. Before we departed, a buddy gave me a paperback copy of Philip Roth's 1986 book The Counterlife, the fifth of his nine "Zucker-man Novels." I had read Roth before--admittedly only Goodbye Colmnbus and Portnoy's Complaint--and was indifferent to his work. I didn't see myself in those stories. I wasn't "those Jews." My only interest in Roth was observing how he irritated the Jewish-American community. Unlike his critics (many of whom I am still convinced have never read one of his books) I never saw Roth as a self-hating Jew I saw him as a kindred not-so-nice Jewish boy presenting an insider's perspective on something he knew intimately, following the tradition F. Scott Fitzgerald pioneered in The Great Gatsby. It takes one to really know one after all, and the best people to challenge and deconstruct a culture's view of itself are those from within. But I was up in the air about Roth's work itself.

On die next-to-last day of our trip I sat at our campsite in Death Valley and could not put down The Counterlife. It's a novel of "what ifs" centering on Roth's alter-ego, Nathan Zuckerman, going off to find his thought-to-be secular brother, Henry, who has abandoned his wife and children for a life with West Bank fanatics in Israel, and how each man grapples with his own Jewishness. Throughout the entire book, Nathan wants to believe that being Jewish makes him no different from anyone else until unexpected anti-Semitism makes that belief impossible. For the first time, I was reading fiction on Jewish themes that posed questions that had no definitive answers and forced me to reconsider my place in the world. When I read lines in The Counterlife such as "I don't have to act like a Jew--I am one," my values were challenged instead of being reaffirmed, as they might be if I were watching, say, Neil Simon's play Brighton Beach Memoirs (Are family bonds really as unconditional as we like to believe they are? Should we really sacrifice our individual passions for the greater community's agenda? What can make reasonable and grounded people behave recklessly?). The novel was completely devoid of sentimentality--perfect for a bitter and jaded 21-year-old.

I had been writing fiction seriously for several years, but had shied away from exploring Jewish themes in my stories. …