Looking at Roth
by Royee Zvi Atedgi
I am looking, as I write of Roth, at the photograph of the two of us at Bard College––a small, tree-filled liberal arts institution located in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. I am standing next to him with a blank expression on my spectacled face and a camera slung across my shoulder. It is the end of August and Philip Roth has been dead for a year-and-a-half. His face (indeed the whole of his body) is inaccessible to me. Inhumed under six feet of dirt, marked with a crudely formed boulder his groundskeeper picked out from his vast Connecticut parcel––carved as simply as the headstone of Albert Camus (PHILIP ROTH 1933-2018)––he is hardly up for conversation. I try anyway as I take a stone and set it atop the grave. “I like the new digs––pun intended––but why not be buried in Newark with Bess and Herman?” An avid atheist, he would’ve hated this Jewish gesture of piling stones on graves, a practice whose origins, to this day, have not been fully explained to me. He probably would have hated this kind of pilgrimage to begin with. I am not, after all, a young Zuckerman going to see E.I. Lonoff in the Berkshires. But that’s how I see myself as I pass the other graves, moving through coins of sunlight minted by the maple trees swaying above me. My girlfriend at the time took the photograph, humoring me this little detour after a week of camping and being eaten to death by mosquitoes in New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts. She is a literary person too, so she understood why I asked to take the long way back to Pennsylvania.
At home, I search Google for images of him. There is one of him in his 20’s as a young instructor at the University of Chicago, bored-looking with his head in his hand, elbow on a table of books. He does not look particularly Jewish here: tall, imposing, hair closely clipped. He could easily pass for a dashing Italian. The most Jewish he ever looks is during his time in London sometime in his late 40’s, early 50’s, where his Semitic features are highlighted (purposely, according to his biographer) by a rabbi-like, salt-and-pepper-colored beard. The progression of hair loss over the years––ultimately wavy and laid at the sides of his head––solidifies him as part of our tribe: his eyes have become small and sunken, the eyebrows are more unruly than ever, loose skin dangles precariously from his neck. All of this whittling away due to age brings the nose forward as an ever more prominent centerpiece.
When he died, I wrote a eulogy. I’ll spare myself from revisiting it here. This kind of saccharine celebrity worship is something I’ve always looked down on others for doing. Instead of that, what I remember most clearly on May 22nd, 2018, is finding, among my things, a receipt from the U.S. Postal Service with a tracking number to an address in Warren, Connecticut. I had looked up the voter rolls in that state in 2016 and, under the name Philip Milton Roth, registered Democrat, I found his address. What I did next was what some budding writers might do––send him a letter complete with an early draft of a manuscript I was working on at the time. I refreshed the USPS website every day, watching as my package made its way from Philadelphia to New Jersey to Connecticut and then, curiously, to an address in Manhattan that I found out later was his apartment on the Upper West Side. I never heard back––of course the great author was probably swarmed with letters, but just knowing he may have laid eyes on it before instructing an assistant to toss it in the garbage pail was enough for me. In many ways, I first saw myself in Roth’s work. As a young Jewish man figuring out (or fighting) my Jewish identity in a mostly Protestant suburb, Roth’s work reflected nearly every desire, thought, joke, provocation, and circumstance that I thought was mine alone and painfully. He’s my literary father figure, which catalyzes me now to imagine Philip Roth the father. In some ways, this is an easy imaginative exercise seeing as Roth himself died childless. I am not taking any liberties.
Indeed, if my own father had not been a kibbutznik and then a soldier and then a jeweler and then a butcher and then a chef and then a handyman, I imagine he might have been Philip Roth. I could see myself as a small child stepping off the yellow bus in the Krewstown section of Northeast Philadelphia in the winter of 1970 to find him with his eyes in a book, lounging in a knockoff Eames chair, his eyes scanning pages, his pen in his mouth. I would have just come back early from school as Christmas break was about to begin, and although ours was a public school (named after Anne Frank no less), we had just made Santa Claus clocks out of paper plates and colored construction paper. Not immune to the Freudian impulse to please my father, to seek his approval, I would have proudly displayed my Santa clock to him, which he would take in his hands and say with his bushy eyebrows raised incredulously, “This is what they had you do today? What kind of public school is this? If I wanted you to bring home Santa Claus clocks, I would have enrolled you at Maternity BVM.”
My father. Always so direct and to the point, his emotions cold and unmasked, making my ability to live up to his high standards––or impress him––a losing game. Applying myself to the scholastic endeavor, I always achieved high marks. I wanted him to admire my scholarship, even at age six, even as I proudly displayed for him my A-minus to hear him reply with the same tired joke, “What happened to the plus?” He was a rough-hewn, uneducated man which is why he valued my education and put it before most everything else. He did not want me to turn out to be in his position––working as an office manager at the Nabisco factory down the boulevard, having given up on the higher aim of literature. Each day, he would come home smelling of fresh-baked cookies instead of book pages. He had never gone to college, had barely completed high school. His knowledge was based in a random absorption of things that caught his attention like architecture or American history. This is how knowledge came to him––floating to him off the surface of lived experience. I did not gain the gene of street smarts that was afforded to him as a working class boy in Newark’s Weequahic section. This caused an imbalance between us.
I remember one hot summer day when I was eight watching him mow the tiny square of lawn in the backyard. His thin forearms glistening with sweat, his already balding head shining, pushing one of those old manual mowers, he suddenly stopped when a spurt of blood came up and landed on his khaki pants. Horrified, I watched him pull at something in the grass and, coming with it, I nearly fainted: it was a pair of baby rabbits who he hadn’t seen nested in the grass what with the sweat in his brows blinding him. He saw me, paralyzed, in the window.
“Royee, come here, come outside.”
“Dad, I don’t want to. I’m afraid.”
“Don’t be. It’s only death. Bring a shovel.” Always the straightforward, matter-of-fact speech.
I stepped outside with some hesitation, running past the hornets hovering in the bushes to where my father was standing in his grass-stained shirt by the soccer net I used for practice. I lifted the shovel to him as I looked into the eyes of the stiffened rabbits, dead and glassed-over in fright.
“No,” he said, pressing the shovel back into my hands. “I want you to dig, over there. We have to bury them.”
Ever the approval-seeking son, I did as I was told. That’s how it had been all my life with him. If he told me not to put my finger near a flame, until this day I won’t do it. I didn’t ever press his buttons to see what I could get away with. As I made a small hole big enough for the rabbits, my father turned on the hose and began scrubbing away at the blood, which fell in a reddish mixture with the water onto the concrete slab leading to the basement door. Then he went inside and came back out with a pen, a piece of paper, and a thin stake of wood.
“What are we going to do with that?” I asked him. Everything he did filled me with awe.
“We are going to give them a proper burial, with a little poem.”
He sat in the grass. These were the moments where I could have cried, because there was still something lingering there in his dream of becoming a writer. And I felt so bad for him because life had accustomed him to slowly whittle away at dreams in exchange for a reality that always seemed disappointing and unfulfilling. I sat on his lap.
“What should we write?” he asked me.
“I don’t know. I’ve never seen anything die before.”
He laughed this big, sonorous laugh as though all the life in him was contained in it.
“Well,” he said, “first time for everything. Just think really hard. What would you want to say if you knew these rabbits like you know your friends?”
“I guess I would say ‘Rest In Peace. You were good rabbits and I wish you had more time to play outside. Sorry about the death.”
He handed me the pen and paper. He said, “Write.”
Rest In Peace
You were good rabbits
I wish you had more time to play outside
Sorry about the death
He took the page with my blocky handwriting and taped it to the stake of wood. We stood over their bodies and while he shoveled dirt over them, I dug a small hole with my fingers for the marker and pressed it in. My father is not a religious man. In all likelihood he is an atheist, but he still has a reverence for life and death. We didn’t say any weird prayers like the men in shul with their scraggly beards that we saw once a year for the high holidays. We just stood there silently. Not one to linger much, my father walked back into the house to change his clothes and head off to work for the night shift. I stood there until the sun went down.
My father loves to swim, and we go to the JCC on Red Lion Road where I go to camp in the summer with the other Jewish kids in the neighborhood. It’s 1974. While he is swimming, I am playing basketball with the big kids whose families had enough money to buy brass plaques in the main hall with their names under a banner that reads LEGACY CONTRIBUTORS. Under the R’s, I don’t see our name. RABINOWITZ, ROSENTHAL, RETTINGER, RINGOLD, RUBINDORF. But no ROTH. Then I hear the whistle from the swimming pool that signals it’s time for womens water aerobics and I rush into the men’s locker room where a normal sight for Jewish boys like me is playing out: a lot of old naked men walking about with their wrinkly balls hanging out, their penises cut just like mine, with towels slung over the shoulder, fresh from the sauna or the pool. The immense smell of chlorine hits me as I watch a line of them pass by to rinse off in the showers. To rinse off naked side by side. I’m still very short and so I am craning my neck to see when my father will saunter through with his towel wrapped around his thin waist and his dripping ringlets of hair.
A lot of the older men have smudged bluish tattoos on their forearms and my father, as bluntly as if he were explaining it to a man of twenty-five and not a boy of ten who has yet to be bar-mitzvahed, tells me all about the gruesomeness of the Holocaust that had taken place only thirty years before. We watch documentaries together. On this subject, he does not think I need protecting. In later years, after he caught me with my hand down my pajamas and a Playboy leaned up on the pillows, I would find that he had a pretty liberal attitude toward pornography that belied his otherwise stoic and conservative nature.
“Hey Phil, what’s shaking?” One of them yells as he sees my father coming down the hall, skin still beaded with pool water. My father motions for me to sit by him on the bench as he kibbitzes with Harold, a freakishly tall Romanian with the number 92598. He’s one of my father’s acquaintances (my father is what you’d call a hermit and doesn’t really have serious friendships). Harold has been reading from my father’s book collection since around the time I was born to improve his English. My father basically curates what he reads. “Meet me at my locker, I’ve got your book for you, ready to be returned to the Roth Home Library of the Greater Northeast!”
Harold’s wet back looks like it's frowning––the muscle and skin have given way. With one hand, he holds up his green towel and, with the other, reaches into his locker for a book with a blue cover on it.
“Loved this one, that Artur Sammler––wow, when at the end he speaks to God? Brilliant. I think I liked this one more than that Herzog.”
“I’m really glad,” my father says, taking the book in his hands and smiling. It is one of those rare moments to behold––my father gets great satisfaction from opening people’s eyes with books.
“Hey, do you and the boy wanna have dinner at my place tonight? The Eagles game is on too. Maria is making Sarmale.”
My father looks at me as Harold tousles my hair. “Why not? I could use a night off from cooking. I’ll stop by NetCost to get some things. Say, 7? 7:30?”
“Perfect,” Harold says, and unwraps his towel to put his underwear on. He is so tall that his penis is at my eye level.
At NetCost, which is a Russian supermarket about five minutes from home, my father and I pick up caviar and wine and salami and black bread for snacking on during the game. My father picks up weird-sounding foods from Eastern Europe and we take turns trying to pronounce them as best we can: Okroshka, Seledkas lukom, Selyodka Pod Shuboy, Varenyky. We find a new word that becomes part of our everyday vocabulary and a playful insult we’ve carried long after its expiration date: Solenya, meaning, pickles.
“Solenya, solenya, solenya!” I chase him around the house with my toy gun before we head to Harold’s house. Once there and inside, it is like being transported to another continent: colorful geometric tapestries and rugs, little trinkets and engraved wooden shelves and cabinets, hand-carved chairs. My father greets Harold and Maria at the door and hands Maria the groceries we brought.
There are two candles lit in the living room even though it is still light out. “Dad,” I say, pulling at his button-down, “what are those candles?”
Harold tousles my hair and before my father can interject, he says, “They are memorial candles. One for my mother and one for my sister. We hid in the woods. I came out. I was maybe 14, my sister was older by two years. To stay warm, we dug up the earth with our hands and crawled under the dirt like a blanket. Well, one morning they didn’t wake up, they were all blue, their lips––so blue. I can never get that hue out of my head. So I dug the holes they were in a bit deeper, and covered them with dirt, and said the burial rites and kept walking until I came across the Red Army and joined their ranks.”
My father is listening intently, with his eyes sharp and focused. If he were a writer, he’d be trying to figure out how to fictionize all this, to invent off of all that he knows about Harold and make it into a best seller like his favorite post-war novelists Saul Bellow and Barnard Malamud and even John Updike, though he likes him a little less. “Too poetic, too lyrical” for his taste.
At home, I ask him why he works at Nabisco and not in the library or not a writer himself. He looks at me long and hard and says, finally, “I’m happy with the choices I’ve made. Besides, what kind of life is that really, to be a writer? To be like a soldier every day at the desk. To turn flesh and blood into characters. To obsessively turn a sentence. No. I think I quite like coming home to you smelling of cookies instead of desperation.”
There are a number of writers in the Jewish literary tradition that brought new meaning into literature and into myself. Roth just happened to be the first and most explosive. I remember marveling at those long sentences, those bursts of fury, excitement, devastation, the sublime. I also remember seeing myself in his characters, in his speech, in his subjects, in his critical eye asking questions. The origins of this piece are partly from Roth’s Looking at Kafka and Sam Apple’s The Butcher of Desire, or Imagining Philip Roth. Roth already is kind of a literary father figure to me and most closely fits what Harold Bloom describes as the “precursor poet” to whom I feel both indented and a little intimidated by. Besides, he was so unlike my own Israeli father who has never read Philip Roth and would probably not understand him like I do, his Americanized son. So this experimental piece was a way of trying to see Roth not only as my literary father but as my real father. What would he be like? It is hard to know how much he blurred the real and the imagined as it relates to his biography, so I could only invent off two things: what his persona seemed to be in interviews and in his official biography as well as the fact that Roth never had children. It’s almost funny and strange, if you’ve followed Roth’s career, to imagine him with a child. He was a prolific and dedicated writer who thought probably that raising children would somehow impact his writing life. A friend of his relates the story of when Roth was given a pair of kittens to look after and by week’s end he gave them back. They were too much of a distraction from writing.