In 2012, an author approached Philip Roth in a New York deli, offering him a copy of his newly published novel. Roth, at the time considered by some to be America’s greatest writer, had some counsel for his fan: “Really, it’s an awful field. ... I would say just stop now. You don’t want to do this to yourself. That’s my advice to you.”
The story didn’t come as a surprise to admirers of Roth, who was long known for his gloomy outlook and dry wit. For some, he was hard to love; for most, he was hard to know. In his new biography of the novelist, though, Blake Bailey paints a vivid portrait of the Jewish kid from New Jersey who would go on to become one of the world’s most celebrated authors.
Bailey traces Roth’s life from his childhood in his beloved Newark, where he was, in many ways, the picture of an all-American boy, who loved the Brooklyn Dodgers and earned mostly Bs in high school, and wanted to be “a lawyer for the underdog.”
That career goal didn’t last long, though. A world literature class at Bucknell University captured his imagination, and he dedicated the rest of his life as a student to English, publishing his first short story while a graduate student at the University of Chicago. From then on, he had no intention of being anything other than a writer and a teacher.
It was in Chicago that Roth met Maggie Martinson, the woman who would become his first wife. The couple had a tempestuous relationship; they married in 1959 after Martinson, Roth claims, faked a pregnancy and an abortion to guilt him into tying the knot.
Roth’s relationship with Martinson is in some ways the first test of Bailey’s biography — it’s obvious that the author admires his subject, but he’s careful to point out Roth’s own flaws, some of which were quite serious. Roth, for instance, recalled throwing a plate of eggs at Martinson’s head, and he once told a friend that he was worried about becoming attracted to Martinson’s daughter when “she got a little older.” And when Martinson died in a car crash in 1968, five years after the pair had separated, Roth said to her coffin, “You’re dead and I didn’t have to do it.”
Roth made a splash in the literary world with his debut, “Goodbye, Columbus,” a book he would later “all but disown.” But he became a bona-fide superstar in 1969 with the publication of “Portnoy’s Complaint,” his infamous novel about a sex-crazed young man with a difficult relationship with his mother.
Bailey does an excellent job writing not just about the book, but about the furor it caused — it was quickly banned in Australia, and talk show hosts had a field day discussing the then-shocking masturbation-themed book. (Author Jacqueline Susann famously told Johnny Carson that she’d like to meet Roth, “but I wouldn’t want to shake his hand.”)
Roth wrote about Martinson — or a thinly veiled version of her — in his novel “My Life as a Man,” and that book sets up the second big test in this biography: how Bailey writes about Roth’s alleged misogyny. Accusations that Roth hated women enraged the novelist, but Bailey neither exactly acquits nor convicts him of the charges.
He does, however, present a warts-and-all portrayal of Roth’s relationships with women, which were marked by infidelity, and recounts an alleged pair of incidents in which Roth made sexual advances to a friend of his then-companion Clare Bloom’s daughter. (Roth denied the charges; Bailey, perhaps purposefully, doesn’t quite tip his hand on whether he believes him. Roth and Bloom would later get married and then acrimoniously divorce.)
Bailey writes about Roth’s later years with a sensitivity that’s respectful but not worshipful. He recalls the author’s faux consternation when his 1991 memoir “Patrimony” was published to rave reviews: “I’m loved! What did I do wrong?” Toward the end of his career, Roth seemed to have come to terms — as much as he could — with his mixed reputation, although he never got over not winning the Nobel Prize. (When Bob Dylan took home the award in 2016, Roth said, archly, “It’s okay, but next year I hope Peter, Paul, and Mary get it.”
“Philip Roth” is a fair-minded book, and Bailey does an excellent job writing about the life of the author who tended to play his cards close to his vest. Not all of his novels reflected his own life, as Bailey points out: “Some novels were more autobiographical than others, to be sure, but Roth himself was too protean a figure to be pinned to any particular character, and relatively little is known about the actual life on which so vast an oeuvre was supposedly based.”
Bailey also proves to be an intelligent reader of Roth’s books, and the biography is peppered with sharp insights — not all favorable ones — into the late author’s canon. He does allow, however, that of the other writers in Roth’s cohort (John Updike, Don DeLillo, etc.), “Roth’s work stands the best chance of enduring.”
It’s a wonderful book that seems certain to become the definitive biography of Roth’s fascinating, sometimes troubling, life — Roth was a brilliant writer, and Bailey does him justice in this beautifully written and highly readable volume.
PHILIP ROTH: THE BIOGRAPHY
By Blake Bailey
W.W. Norton, 912 pages, $40
Michael Schaub is a Texas-based journalist and a vice president of the National Book Critics Circle.