For my favorite Roth novel, I’m going to choose a short story. It’s “Conversion of the Jews” from Roth’s very first book, the collection “Goodbye, Columbus.” It’s a story so simple and wonderful and philosophical and human and — why I chose it — deeply personal for me. In it, a Hebrew school student named Ozzie tackles the big questions about God and religion, coming head-to-head with his poor, tortured teacher, Rabbi Binder. Ozzie just wants to understand why Rabbi Binder can’t accept that a God who can create the world in six days, can’t also have made Mary pregnant with Jesus. It doesn’t seem to be a reach, miracle-wise, from Ozzie’s point of view. The story builds beautifully and empathetically and dramatically, right to its knock-the-wind-out-of-you end. But it’s not only the structure of it, or the humor of it, or the writing that kills me. It’s the existence of the story itself. As someone who grew up religious, and who got thrown out of my own class by my own rabbi for asking my own versions of those very same questions, discovering that story was a marvel. I just couldn’t believe that it was out there in the universe. That, in fact, it had been there the whole time, bound up in a book published the year before I was born. Discovering a heightened, pressurized, dramatized version of your own struggles on the page, that is a life-changing experience, and for many a reader, lifesaving.
With “American Pastoral,” Roth set aside the mirror games he used to complicate his own life on paper, and instead tackled the story of what happened to this country between World War II and Vietnam. In doing so, he created the most expansive novel of his career — a big, stirring novel that testified not just to his gift for limning the psyche of the contemporary American male, but also to a talent for mapping the discontinuities of 20th century history.
In an essay from 1961, Roth argued that American life had become so surreal that it had ceased to be a manageable subject for novelists; and fiction writers like himself were abandoning “the grander social and political phenomena of our times” in favor of creating “wholly imaginary worlds” or “a celebration of the self.” “American Pastoral” burst through such inhibitions with astonishing verve. It explored the intersection of the personal and the political, and it turned the generational struggles that afflict so many Roth characters into a metaphor for two contradictory impulses in American history — the Emersonian strain of optimistic self-reliance; and a darker strain of narcissism and rebellion that Roth called “the indigenous American berserk.” It created an indelible portrait of one family, and a resonant parable about American innocence and disillusion.
For me, “Operation Shylock” — Roth’s dizzying 1993 fantasy in which Philip Roth, the author, sets out to track down an impostor “Philip Roth” who’s going around Israel promoting a scheme to get Israeli Jews to return to the lands of their East European ancestors — represents the zenith of Roth’s talents. Here, the coruscating linguistic brilliance, the profanity and playfulness (and the deep, often irritated engagement with Jewishness) that characterizes his earlier novels rise to new — and, I would say, philosophical — heights. For the two Roths finally meet in a Jerusalem that is anxiously hosting the trial of John Demjanjuk, the Ukrainian-born Ohio autoworker who was revealed to have been a sadistic guard at a Nazi death camp: a setting that amplifies the significance of Roth’s favorite themes of identity and imposture, truth and fictionality, and gives the ostensibly zany, Quixote–esque plot an ultimately tragic historical resonance.