"Never complain, never explain," said Henry Ford II to inquiring reporters many years ago when arrested behind the wheel of his vehicle in an inebriated condition and with a woman who was not his wife.
While extremely good advice, it is easier for an auto magnate to follow than for a novelist. Particularly a novelist like Philip Roth, whose irrepressible genius as a kvetcher has long been recognized in such American classics of Jewish life as "Goodbye Columbus" and "Portnoy's Complaint."Having spent all of his 30-year-long literary career complaining, Roth has now decided to explain himself in an autobiography.
"The Facts" is pretty thin, flat stuff, a kind of solemn New York Times report on a Newark Jewish wedding party from which all the outrageous, Roth-like quirkiness has been deleted.
Roth being Roth, even this bowdlerized autobiography is far from tedious in its stern, thin-lipped quest for middle-aged dignity. Indeed, the book is sometimes funny and frequently touching, but the overall impression is of solemn respectability, its tone uneasily reminiscent of an academic with a checkered past attempting by way of a grave and somewhat selective apologia pro vita sua to gain membership in some upper-crusty literary society.
But the risk of such self-criticism piled on self-criticism is to rouse the reader to new heights of suspicion and dissatisfaction. One begins to look askance, if not to scoff at Roth's tepid and perhaps even disingenuous apologies for causing his Jewish co-religionists so much pain through his reprobate treatment of American Jewish culture.
"The Facts" is an autobiography that by failing to explain enough generates more than its share of complaints, though not for once from Roth himself.