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 hisfirst short stories demonstrated only how blind he was to the material thatlater made him famous. While he would happily regale his friends with storiesof growing up Jewish—”…of somebody’s shady uncle the bookie and somebody’ssharpie son the street-corner bongo player and of the comics Stinky and Shorty…”—theidea of moving this world onto the page never occurred to him:

[T]he stories I wrote, setabsolutely nowhere, were mournful little things about sensitive young mencrushed by coarse life…. The Jew was nowhere to be seen; there were no Jews inthe stories, no Newark, and not a sign of comedy—the last thing I wanted to dowas to hand anybody a laugh in literature. …[I]t did not dawn on me that theseanecdotes and observations might be made into literature, however fictionalizedthey’d already become in the telling. Thomas Wolfe’s exploitation of Ashevilleor Joyce’s of Dublin suggested nothing about focusing this urge to write on myown experience. How could Art be rooted in a parochial Jewish Newark neighborhoodhaving nothing to do with the enigma of time and space or good and evil orappearance and reality?

Then the shekel droppedand Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) becamea bestseller—though, as The Facts makesclear, Portnoy’s tormented upbringing was not Roth’s. As if living an episode from HappyDays, Roth and his Newark friends worked and hung out at Syd’s, the localdiner, 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’dplayed pickup football and baseball, where my brother had competed in schooltrack meets, where I’d shagged flies for hours with anybody who would fungo theball out to me, where my friends and I hung around on Sunday mornings, watchingwith amusement as the local fathers—the plumbers, the electricians, the producemerchants—kibitzed their way through their weekly softball game. If ever I hadbeen called upon to express my love for my neighborhood in a single reverentialact, I couldn’t have done better than to get down on my hands and knees andkiss 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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