Roth in Newark

March 19: Philip Roth was born on this day in 1933. In The Facts, his memoir of the earlier years, Roth says that his first short stories demonstrated only how blind he was to the material that later made him famous. While he would happily regale his friends with stories of growing up Jewish—"…of somebody's shady uncle the bookie and somebody's sharpie son the street-corner bongo player and of the comics Stinky and Shorty…"—the idea of moving this world onto the page never occurred to him:

[T]he stories I wrote, set absolutely nowhere, were mournful little things about sensitive young men crushed by coarse life…. The Jew was nowhere to be seen; there were no Jews in the stories, no Newark, and not a sign of comedy—the last thing I wanted to do was to hand anybody a laugh in literature. …[I]t did not dawn on me that these anecdotes and observations might be made into literature, however fictionalized they'd already become in the telling. Thomas Wolfe's exploitation of Asheville or Joyce's of Dublin suggested nothing about focusing this urge to write on my own experience. How could Art be rooted in a parochial Jewish Newark neighborhood having nothing to do with the enigma of time and space or good and evil or appearance and reality?

Then the shekel dropped and Portnoy's Complaint (1969) became a bestseller—though, as The Facts makes clear, Portnoy's tormented upbringing was not Roth's. As if living an episode from Happy Days, Roth and his Newark friends worked and hung out at Syd's, the local diner, which was close to his old grade school, and next to his high school, and close to the center of his universe: 

It was the field where I'd played pickup football and baseball, where my brother had competed in school track meets, where I'd shagged flies for hours with anybody who would fungo the ball out to me, where my friends and I hung around on Sunday mornings, watching with amusement as the local fathers—the plumbers, the electricians, the produce merchants—kibitzed their way through their weekly softball game. If ever I had been called upon to express my love for my neighborhood in a single reverential act, I couldn't have done better than to get down on my hands and knees and kiss the ground behind home plate.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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