From Portnoy’s Complaint to Nemesis Philip Roth: Chronicler of the American Identity

By Carole Reedy

Shock waves hit the literary community last year when Philip Roth announced his retirement after 50 years of writing and more than 30 novels to show for it. We rarely think of writers entering the world of non-work. They write until death, right? Roth claims he has nothing more to say except that he’ll be working on his own autobiography from now on.

Good enough. Let’s reflect on the wealth he’s gifted us. Roth leaves a rare variety of novels that capture American life from World War II though the Korean War, the McCarthy period, the polio epidemic, years of racial tension, and parental worries.

Who he is and what he writes

Roth has dedicated his life to entertaining us with novels that address morals and identity in our society, without leaving us to conclude that it’s all been easily manipulated or concluded. The magic of Roth is his ability to take the workings of American society and weave them within an historical framework, written in prose that is as exact and compelling as any can be.

Roth’s subjects are vast and varied, taking us back 20, 30, 40 years, most often to the familiar settings of his adult and childhood years in New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut.   The struggles of people of all professions, backgrounds, and religions enter the realm of Roth’s world, but most are based on his Jewish ancestry. Although the ambiance is pure American, Roth has readers and fans the world over. His themes are universal, as is his unique writing style depicting situations, characters, places, and moral dilemmas as few writers can.

A recent biography of Philip Roth, Roth Unbound, written by Claudia Roth Pierpont (no relation) tells his life story but in an unusual context. Instead of a simple chronology of his life, she traces his years via his books. It’s a two-for-one bonus: a life story with a detailed analysis of the novels that shaped it.

Roth’s books, a few of the favorites

Portnoy’s Complaint The publication one of Roth’s first novels raised eyebrows (to say the least) among novel readers and an uproar within the Jewish community. Young Alexander Portnoy’s graphic descriptions of sex, masturbation, his mother, and religion are among the topics about which he rants from the couch of his psychiatrist. The press generally gave Roth high grades for this daring effort. Cynthia Ozick from Newsday described Roth as “the bravest writer in the United States. He’s morally brave, he’s politically brave. And Portnoy is part of that bravery.” The Chicago Sun Times called the book “Simply one of the two or three funniest works in American fiction.”

American Pastoral Well-deserved winner of the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Literature, this tome tells the history of one man, his family, and the complexity of it all against the framework of the upheaval of the 1960s and 70s. The book offers a well-crafted story within the historical context of the time, touching on the Newark riots, racial tensions and the trial of Angela Davis, the bombings by the radical Weathermen, and the US involvement in Vietnam. This is where Roth shines.

The Plot Against America A clever plot lies at the core of this novel. What would have happened if Franklin Roosevelt had lost his second term in office to conservative isolationist Republican Charles Lindbergh?   Simultaneously entertaining and thought-provoking, Roth claims that the parents in this novel are based on his own. Many readers are under the impression that this is true of all his novels, but Roth says not.

The Human Stain Of all of Roth’s novels, this is one that seems to get the most praise. In order not to reveal its intriguing plot, let’s just say it goes to the core of race, prejudice, and choice. It is a beautifully woven history and story.

I Married a Communist Most reflections on the McCarthy era and the search for Communists in the US examine the hunt for Hollywood screenwriters, artists, authors, or politicians. This brilliant novel’s main character is none of those. Ira hails from a working class background and leaves school at 15 to do back-breaking labor. This is his story told from the point of view of a young admirer, his brother’s student.


The Ghost Writer and Exit Ghost The story of a novelist first as a young university student in The Ghost Writer and 30 years later as a recluse in Exit Ghost makes an interesting and compelling duet. Shades of Anne Frank hover in The Ghost Writer, adding another literary element to the story.

Indignation This short novel about youth and war is tightly woven, compelling, and, ultimately, shattering.

Nemesis Roth’s final novel revolves around a polio epidemic in the 1940s (not a fact, but based on other polio epidemics). Once again set in Newark, Roth examines universal emotions such as blame, guilt, and fear during the epidemic and the repercussions that follow.

A plethora of awards

It all started with the announcement that Roth was to receive the National Book Award in 1960 for Goodbye Columbus, a collection of a novella and five short stories. He received the award again in 1995 for Sabbath’s Theater. The beloved Pulitzer Prize was awarded to Roth in 1998 for his novel American Pastoral. Both The Counterlife (1987) and Patrimony (1992) won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Operation Shylock (1993) won the PEN/Faulkner award for fiction and also was named by Time magazine as the best American novel.