God love him.
The only novelist whose books I’ve often read one handed, Roth knew what we wanted and delivered it book after book. Whether it’s the infamous onastic attack by Alexander Portnoy on a hunk of liver or the professor who turns into a woman’s breast, it seems every type of sexual indulgence and deviant behavior can be found within the pages of vintage Roth.
Why this constant mix of high lit with the perverse? Because it’s all part of life. And this author is nothing but an honest and careful chronicler of the way we live.
Especially when our pants are down around our ankles.
With this in mind, here is my list of the five most outré scenes proudly displayed on any respectable bookshelf, courtesy of Philip Roth:
5. In The Humbling (2009), blocked actor Simon Axler, in his mid-sixties, takes up with a woman named Pegeen who is two decades his junior. Never mind that she’s the daughter of his friends from the old days in the Village and a lesbian, he persuades her to move in with him. Eventually, Axler gets around to having his new lover procure a local coed for their mutual satisfaction. A strap-on prosthetic and some acrobatic maneuvering create a lustful daisy chain that nearly unblocks our aging thespian. However, perhaps underlining Roth’s subservience in his work to the poles of “sheer playfulness” and “deadly seriousness,” Axler remains ultimately doomed to a Chekhovian end. At a time in life when some of Roth’s other protagonists were losing the battle of the bulge to prostate surgery and other indignities of aging, the Bard of Newark managed to pull out the stops one more time for this late volume delivering a lead character who goes down swinging.
4. In his film, L.A. Story, Steve Martin’s character allows that if he were a woman he’d simply stay at home and play with his breasts all day. Nearly two decades earlier, Roth beat him to the punch. In The Breast (1972) David Kepesh turns into the titular 155-pound gland, embodying the famous warning, be careful what you wish for. Naturally, as any man who’s turned into a walking talking breast would do, Kepesh sits in his hospital room while he enlists his girlfriend for hour-long sessions of caressing, listens as his seemingly oblivious father speaks to his nipple about life outside, and spends his downtime with recordings of Shakespeare’s masterworks. The novel ends with Kepesh citing a Rilke poem that concludes with the line: “You must change your life.”
3. In The Professor of Desire (1977), Kepesh returns and leads a course called Desire 341, where he shares with the class his sexual longings and encourages his students to do join the discussion. However, the novel’s pièce de déviance is when Kepesh travels to Prague and dreams of a visit with Kafka’s ancient and arthritic hooker. In this fantasy encounter, one not likely listed among Fodor’s recommendations, the erstwhile professor pays a few dollars to “face the unseemly thing itself,” and stares into her uber-exposed private region looking for answers. This gets him no closer to understanding Kafka. His conclusion is it looks like a phony mustache and not much else.
2. Ahhh, the shot heard ’round the world of letters. Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) made Roth both famous and infamous. After Alexander Portnoy, he of the “flying fist,” purchases a piece of liver and uses it as yet another masturbatory prop, people around the world began double checking their Braunschweiger before digging in. Throughout the novel, our protagonist reveals to his shrink his multiple hang-ups and family problems as he alternately abuses himself in bathrooms, on buses and behind billboards. Yet Dr. Spielvogel never once utters the advice we all know to be best for this lusty chap: “Stay out of the meat section.”
1. Mickey Sabbath is to whoremastering what Neil Armstrong was to moon walking. The protagonist of Roth’s 1995 National Book Award winning Sabbath’s Theater seemingly ran through the usual perversities and had to start inventing lurid acts to keep him occupied. In the novel, he revels in his status as a dirty old man, if only to demonstrate that Eros trumps Thanatos any day of the week (as long as your plumpish Croatian mistress, who is as debauched as you are, is close at hand, that is). Sabbath, a retired puppeteer, graduated from snatching clandestine feels on the streets of New York, to raiding the panty drawer of his longtime friend’s daughter, to marking his lover’s grave in an unusual, if fitting, manner. Somehow by the end, all this convinces him that life is worth living after all. Sabbath’s Theater is the Mona Lisa of literary prurience, as shocking as it is hilarious and death obsessed. As in much of Roth’s best work, there is an existential sadness at its core, despite the carnivalesque doings and accompanying bacchanalia that enliven so many of the pages.
And this is what makes so much of Roth’s fiction literary art of the highest order.