04/25/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Philip Roth Reader: Putting the Ire in Satire

An angry writer is a wonderful thing, because he or she can better express what the rest of the population is thinking. Think of the best chicken dish you ever ate in a restaurant, prepared by a professional chef -- and then consider your own best effort. I don't care how good a home cook you are (and I'm not a bad one, not by a long shot). The skilled professional has a level of expertise that civilians can't match -- a more complete vocabulary, if you well -- whether the target of that heightened consciousness is the blank canvas that is a chicken breast or, in Roth's case, a politician who polarized the country, leaving a hefty chunk of the population insensate with rage.

Being fed up with Richard Nixon was a cottage industry during his one-and-a-piece term as President, though journalists will be ever grateful to him for elevating us, even temporarily, to hero status. Yes, there was a time before paparazzi when the people's right to know was the holy grail, and Woodward and pre-infidelity, pre-Ephron Bernstein were role models. But the notion that the truth would set us free -- and turn Nixon out of office -- came late in the game, after years that were the equivalent of nails on a chalkboard. How could Nixon say such a thing, and such a thing, and such a thing? He kept endless left-wing dinner parties alive.

Roth based his fifth book, Our Gang, on a relatively minor item in the available inventory of Nixonian misstatements, a convoluted riff on the rights of the unborn. Roth was off to the races, abandoning the kind of characters who had peopled his work so far -- who struggled to see past their personal psycho-schtick, whether Jew or non-Jew, comic or deadly serious or both. This time he went after no less than the leader of the free world and his cronies, and holy spin doctor, he took them at, and took them apart for, their word.

If the unborn had rights, then why stop with the question of whether Lieutenant John Calley inadvertently -- or vertently, I guess -- performed an abortion on one of the 22 people he killed, either by killing a woman whom he thought was overweight but was in fact pregnant, or by agreeing to attempt an abortion on a victim who somehow managed to hand him a request written in English? How about the fetuses who survived? What rights did they have despite their inability to think or feel or reason?

How about the vote?

When I was little, my dad had a restaurant supply store in a neighborhood that was not on any developer's map, but boy, the Chicago precinct bosses knew where it was. "Vote early, vote often" is the slogan I recall, and on election day the precinct workers would prop up one drunk after another, long enough for him to cast his vote, and then reward him with a bottle from the candidate he'd been instructed to vote for.

If those fellows helped sway elections, why not the unborn, who might at least be temporarily residing inside some nice, highly-educated mom who understood the issues?

That's the beginning of what is definitely a high-wire act, and I confess that at first I was resistant: Sure, I missed the family drama of the earlier books, but it was more than that. I lived through the Nixon administration, and didn't enjoy it much in its first run. Why would I subject myself to a revival, however comic?

Precisely because it is a high-wire act, and because reading it is a particular thrill at a time when people mistake tweets for writing, and blithely confuse it's and its and don't care anymore, a time when I feel like a curmudgeon for pointing out that it's and its are not interchangeable. I revere Gene Kelly, I can argue persuasively that the young Barbara Stanwyck was sexier putting on a shoe than any number of starlets are as they take things off, and I admire Roth for being able to discipline rage into something that makes us feel smarter just for reading it. Don't call me stodgy until you check out any one of the three of them, to see what art is like with all cylinders firing.

Karen Stabiner's novel, Getting In, will be published in March. Visit or write to