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Philip Roth Turned the Sentence Into an Art Form

Most critics will remember the late writer for his daring, outrageous subject matter. But for me, his genius lies in thousands of perfect sentences.

“Beneath those white shirts were arms and chests and shoulders full of a workingman’s strength—powerful they had to be, to pull and pull on leather all their lives, to squeeze out of every skin every inch of leather there was.”

Christ, those sentences! Those perfect, meandering sentences. That’s what I loved most about Philip Roth, who died Tuesday at the age of 85: his prose.

Look closely at that long, em-dashed sentence from American Pastoral, probably Roth’s finest work, written when he was 64 years old. (Of course, Portnoy’s Complaint, from 1973, is the one everyone talks about. But for fans, it’s not even in Roth’s top five.) It’s part of a long, long, long passage—almost 10 printed pages—about the Newark Maid glove factory, owned by the father of the book’s tragic hero, Seymour “The Swede” Levov. I remember when I first read it—I couldn’t believe how long Roth and I were spending with the minutiae of sewing, cutting, spitting, stretching.

And yet, I was glad to do it, because of those sentences, each as meticulously crafted as a Newark Maid glove. In the one I chose above, mostly at random, you’re seeing the glove makers through the eyes of Swede as a young boy, in awe of their strength and grace: both perfect, pressed white shirts and, beneath, arms and chests and shoulders. The glove-cutters are masculine in their strength but, in a sense, feminine in their polish—“no one in the Swede’s memory had ever removed the tie, let alone turned up shirtsleeves, before donning a fresh white apron and getting down to the first skin.”

There’s a hint of the Swede’s (and Roth’s) Jewish heritage, two generations from Ellis Island, in the backward structure of “powerful they had to be.” I can hear my grandfather in that phrase. And I can imagine his generation squeezing every possible inch of leather out of a stretch of skin.

Roth manages, in this passage and so many others, to convey great themes in the smallest of details. Newark Maid, we know, will not survive the tumult of the 1960s. Neither will the Swede’s idyllic life, which Nathan Zuckerman, Roth’s alter ego who narrates the novel, so idolized in the ’40s and ’50s. Both will be destroyed by forces larger than the young Swede can imagine. A certain kind of America is lost: not “great” as in today’s vulgar populism, but possessed of a kind of dignity that is no more.

American Pastoral was Roth’s great American novel (not to be confused with The Great American Novel, a lesser work published in 1973), part of a trilogy of books on the decline of 20th-century America. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1997.

Yet that trilogy was one of many phases of Roth’s storied career. After a strong start with Goodbye, Columbus in 1959, Roth faltered for a bit, then struck gold with Portnoy in 1969. Like Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, Portnoy was a juicy, sexy book that captured the sexual liberation of the period, even as it was set during an earlier, more repressive era. It sold three million copies. And it blew open the taboo about masturbation with passages like this one:

At the Saturday afternoon movie I would leave my friends to go off to the candy machine — and wind up in a distant balcony seat, squirting my seed into the empty wrapper from a Mounds bar. On an outing of our family association, I once cored an apple, saw to my astonishment (and with the aid of my obsession) what it looked like, and ran off into the woods to fall upon the orifice of the fruit, pretending that the cool and mealy hole was actually between the legs of that mythical being who always called me Big Boy when she pleaded for what no girl in all recorded history had ever had. “Oh shove it in me, Big Boy,” cried the cored apple that I banged silly on that picnic. “Big Boy, Big Boy, oh give me all you’ve got,” begged the empty milk bottle that I kept hidden in our storage bin in the basement, to drive wild after school with my vaselined upright. “Come, Big Boy, come,” screamed the maddened piece of liver that, in my own insanity, I bought one afternoon at a butcher shop and, believe it or not, violated behind a billboard on the way to a bar mitzvah lesson.

I think it’s safe to say that adolescent onanism has never been more hilariously and more honestly described than that. Any man who denies its truthfulness was probably never a teenager.

Notice, though, those Rothian sentences. Whether it’s sewing gloves or “squirting my seed into the empty wrapper from a Mounds bar,” Roth is in total command of his language. Don’t let Portnoy’s wild voice fool you; these sentences are brilliantly, meticulously constructed, word by word, phrase by phrase.

After Portnoy, Roth drifted again, this time a celebrity of the Me Decade, often confused with his characters, vilified as a misogynist and self-hating Jew (as someone similarly labeled each week on Twitter, I consider Roth a role model), more superstar writer than literary genius.

But then came a new phase, beginning with 1979’s The Ghost Writer, the first to feature Zuckerman as protagonist. The “Zuckerman Unbound” series found Roth investigating his big questions: America, Judaism, authors and their audiences. For a decade, Roth built and explored a literary hall of mirrors, full of counterlives and alter-egos. But always with those sentences, that style.

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And then the American trilogy, and Roth’s final phase, with its many novels about death and mortality. 2004’s The Plot Against America imagined a counter-history in which America fought alongside the Nazis—I read it shortly after Donald Trump’s victory, and felt shivers run up and down my spine as Roth seemed to be describing the world in which we now live. Numerous film adaptations of Roth’s work finally came out, and almost all disappointed (Indignation, from 2016, perhaps being the sole exception).

And then he stopped. After 52 years and 31 novels, Roth put down his pen (literally—he wrote longhand) in 2012. He collected some more awards, tended to his legacy, talked brilliantly about not writing anymore.

So it’s not like Roth didn’t prepare us for his death: giving retrospective interviews, stopping writing, killing off the Zuckerman character in 2007 (and another alter ego, David Kepesh, in 2001). It’s not shocking that he’s gone. In a way, it seems fitting: Roth is one of the last survivors of a past golden age of American fiction, populated in part by other American Jews like Norman Mailer and Saul Bellow—I’ve always felt lucky that my own American subculture has been so richly depicted—but also giants like John Updike, Ralph Ellison, Vladimir Nabokov.

Today, the most vital voices in contemporary fiction come from cultures whose voices were not heard by the mainstream during the decades Roth was a star. (Notably, Toni Morrison’s Beloved beat out American Pastoral in a recent poll of the best novel of the last 25 years.) And in the #MeToo era, Roth’s fictional and real-life trials with women are, thankfully, dated. Things haven’t gotten worse—they’ve just changed.

But the irresistible allure of writing is how, beyond death, those sentences—those words—remain.

“I turn sentences around,” one of Roth’s memorable creations, the aging novelist E.I. Lonoff, complains in The Ghost Writer. “That’s my life. I write a sentence and then I turn it around. Then I look at it and I turn it around again. Then I have lunch. Then I come back in and write another sentence. Then I have tea and turn the new sentence around. Then I lie on the sofa and think. Then I get up and throw them out and start from the beginning.”

Thanks for that, Mr. Roth.