Writers, like the rest of us, are entitled to slow down when they approach retirement age. What Philip Roth did, as he began anticipating the popularly euphemistic Golden Years, was to gun his engine and rev out in rapid succession three of the strongest, most vibrant novels of his long career.
American Pastoral (1997) examines the fallout from the radical '60s on one New Jersey family, specifically on the suffering father of an unrepentant terrorist daughter. I Married a Communist (1998), set during the witch hunts of the late '40s and early '50s, traces that era's devastating effects on a naive radio actor. The Human Stain (2000) takes place in 1998, the year that launched Monica Lewinsky and the Clinton impeachment proceedings, and casts a cold eye on the political correctness that unjustly destroys a college professor's career.
Solely on the basis of his output over the past 10 or so years--which also includes the uproarious Operation Shylock (1993); the brooding, death-haunted Sabbath's Theater (1995); and the terse, erotic The Dying Animal, published in May--Roth, 68, would win much support as America's best working novelist. Who else during the same period published so much of such consistently high quality? Even more remarkably, Roth has maintained this elevated standard for more than 40 years, a creative marathon that totals 20 books of fiction. Not all of these are masterpieces, but all are unfailingly ambitious, the products of a mature, demanding artistic conscience.
And when he is good, he is spectacular. Roth's 1959 debut, Goodbye, Columbus, a collection of five stories and the title novella, won a National Book Award. Having leaped from promising to prizewinning in a single bound, Roth could have set about repeating the formula that had brought him such instant recognition. But one of his more intriguing aspects has been his refusal to tailor his work to anyone else's expectations. Within a decade of the delicate Jamesian fiction in Goodbye, Columbus, Roth wrote Portnoy's Complaint, a barbaric yawp of masturbatory misadventures and comic rage.
Younger readers might have a hard chore imagining the impact the best-selling Portnoy's had on popular culture in 1969. TV comics and gossip columnists talked incessantly about Roth and his scandalous book, often speculating about the author's personal life. Surely, so the wisdom ran, Portnoy's was really autobiographical; how could Roth have created such a vividly persuasive portrait of a man in hilarious turmoil except by actually being that man?
Such a narrow conception of fiction and its imaginative resources annoyed and exasperated Roth. He could have deflected these misreadings by following Portnoy's with a novel whose central character bore no surface resemblances to himself. With characteristic contrariness, Roth did the exact opposite. Peter Tarnapol, the narrator of My Life as a Man (1974), is, unlike Portnoy but like Roth, a writer and one who has enjoyed early acclaim, hailed as "'the golden boy of American literature' (New York Times Book Review, September, 1959)." Tarnapol's obsessive topic is his disastrous first marriage; that Roth had lived through such an experience was by then fairly common knowledge among his readers. By giving Tarnapol so many of his own biographical details, Roth seemed to be setting a trap for misinterpreters.