It's been a long, winding road for Philip Roth. But somewhere between "Portnoy's Complaint" (1967) and his new book, "Patrimony," Roth has gone from "black sheep" to "dutiful son."
And readers of Roth over the years have watched the change a book at a time. The seam between fact and fiction in Roth's writing is tough to spot. His last book, "The Facts," for instance, blurred the distinctions so much the book could only be called "faction," a literary docu-drama.But in "Patrimony" we're assured by both the title and the text that what we're getting is the truth, the whole truth . . . at least to the best of Roth's recollection.
And the book may well be the most engaging read of the season.
At a time when baby-boom America is discovering the trauma of "caregiving" for ill and aging parents, it will seem to many that Roth has been reading their mail.
This is not the story of the "life and times" of Philip Roth's father, it is the story of Herman Roth's slow decline. And the grace and strength of the account is the way the author takes his father's simple, hands-on life - a life lived without much philosophical reflection - and turns it into a vibrant meditation on one American life. This, for example, on the elder Roth's penchant for giving away and throwing out objects that some would see as family heirlooms with great sentimental value:Strange, I would think, to find that particular blank spot in a man on whom the claims of family were so emotionally tyrannical - or maybe not strange at all: how could mere keepsakes encapsulate for him the overpowering force of blood bonds? Item by item, I took it all back like a well-trained refund clerk in a first-rate department store, but wondering if perhaps what he was thinking, while he wrapped these gifts in old newspaper and stuffed them in cartons of every description, was that this way we wouldn't have too many of his possessions to bother about after the funeral. He could be a pitiless realist, but I wasn't his offspring for nothing, and I could be pretty realistic, too.Throughout the book, author Roth is able to take incidents particular to the Roth family and make them universal - the way Herman Roth deals with loss, for instance: the loss of his wife, of his physical prowess and his role as the dominant member of the family. Such moments feel so true they hurt, yet are told with freshness and insight, as if Herman Roth were Adam experiencing the wear and tear of mortality for the first time.
As for the writing, it is classic Philip Roth: no bad sentences and a talent for using objects (a shaving mug, a Jewish tefflin) and his father's simple asides ("There's where Bill lived") to launch into pages of meaningful digression.
In the end, if Socrates was right, if the "unexamined life is not worth living," Herman Roth has nothing to worry about. His son has examined his life with dignity, deftness and a touch of unapologetic sentimentality.