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The Philip Roth Reader: Who Cares What Kind of Husband He Was?

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A man I know who is old enough to have multiple grandchildren still gets whiplash if a pair of long legs in high heels walks by. This is fine by me (okay, slightly less than fine if I'm in the middle of making an astute comment when his attention wanders) because it's who he is, it's who he's always been, and besides, it's none of my business. If he stared at me it might become my business, but he doesn't, so it's a peripheral issue.

But the same man says I should not spend my time reading Philip Roth because Roth glorifies himself in his fiction and demeans women. Read Claire Bloom's memoir of her tenure as Roth's wife, he advises, and you'll come to your senses.

And so begins my spiral of frustration, which I will share with you in the small empty space between finishing Letting Go and starting to re-read When She Was Good.

First, I have hung out with writers all my life, and one thing is true: There is no causal link between the way a writer behaves and the way he or she writes. Bad novels happen to good people, and vice versa, and I honestly don't care what kind of a husband Philip Roth was as long as he wakes up every morning and goes to work. I don't want you to think I'm without standards. Given revelations about Patricia Highsmith's anti-Semitism, I won't be rushing to read her collected works any time soon, or if I did, I would be looking for subtext. But what's the point of holding Roth up to some Norman Rockwellian family-man standard?

Moving right along: The minute you embrace the generalization that Philip Roth hates women, you lose the ability to read his writing. Gabe Wallach, the protagonist of Letting Go, a glorification of the over-educated Jewish male? I don't think so. Okay, several female characters seem to find him handsome, and he's well-dressed and wealthy, but that's a women's magazine definition of a particular edition of the alpha male. A half-inch below the surface, Gabe Wallach is incapable of articulating or even defining his feelings, obsessed with superficial, insistent ideas about controlling the uncontrollable, and not a little conflicted about almost everything.

I'd say, and why the heck not, that he and his predecessor Neal Patimkin are the mother yeast of most of Roth's men: They don't hate women as much as they are mystified by them, which makes them angry at everyone because anger and aggression are patented male responses to feeling stupid. The last thing on earth a nice Jewish boy like Philip Roth, or Neal, or Gabe wants to feel is dumb; they'll do anything to avoid it, and the quickest exit strategy is to make the person who makes them feel dumb feel even dumber. This is true of many non-Jewish guys as well, but to stay on topic: Pick any argument Gabe Wallach has with his lover, Martha Reganhart, and you'll see what I mean.

I speak as someone who fell off the wagon at The Breast, who turned my back for years because the misogyny chant got louder just as I embraced the kind of armored feminism that required me to take a stand. But now, as I try with equal fervor to embrace uncertainty (which gives me more room to think), I've started to ask people why they feel the way they do about Roth. The most interestingly consistent element to their replies? They date the women-hating from what one friend calls "his earliest writing, like Portnoy's Complaint."

That 1969 book was his third novel, thanks, 3.5 if you count Goodbye, Columbus, officially a novella. So some people, at least, are basing their response to Roth's career on a span that skips his first works entirely, which is kind of like calculating a career batting average without counting a player's rookie year. It's like missing the opening scene in any of the "Godfather" movies and pretending you understand them. It's like starting with "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" and insisting you get the Beatles.

And I'm willing to bet that more than a few of these readers never got around to The Plot Against America, or American Pastoral, or, or, or.

I'm going to keep reading; the first time around, I remember that Roth worked very hard in When She Was Good to prove that he could write about non-Jews, so I don't yet know how or whether it feeds the misogyny accusation. I may get to novels where I feel that he dislikes or disdains a female character, but for now I'm trying hard not to make the kind of congealed judgment that makes it hard to read for reading's sake.


Karen Stabiner's novel, Getting In, will be published in March 2010. Visit www.karenstabiner.com for more information, or write to her at kstabiner@gmail.com .

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