Philip Roth


(Reviewed by Mary Whipple DEC 7, 2008)

“Tolerance appears to be something of a problem for you, young man.”

“I never heard that said about me before, sir,” said I at the very instant I inwardly sang out the most beautiful word in the English language: ‘In-dig-NA-tion!’ I wanted to…go around the campus shouting it at the top of my lungs.”

In his latest short novel, set in 1951, Philip Roth explores the college experience of the young son of a kosher butcher from Newark, New Jersey. Marcus Messner has rebelled against his father's restrictions and has escaped to college in Winesburg, Ohio, where no one knows him and he can live according to his own values--though he still intends to blend in with the others at Winesburg.

Marcus has participated in all facets of his family's business from the age of six, when he accompanied his father to observe the ritual slaughter of chickens. All through elementary and high school, he worked for his father, even cleaning out the garbage cans in front of the shop, where his schoolmates, including girls, can observe him. After two of Marcus's cousins are killed in the Korean War, Marcus's father becomes particularly protective, restricting Marcus's actions to the point that Marcus feels he must escape.

Some of the novel cannot be discussed without giving away a major spoiler regarding Marcus's future, but as the novel progresses, the reader observes Marcus dealing with his sexuality within the restrictions of the times, pursuing a disturbed young woman who has absolutely bewitched him with her sexual prowess, challenging the fraternity system and his roommates, and eventually showing his "indignation" at the Dean's requirement that he attend weekly chapel. Throughout, Marcus remains a conscientious butcher's son from New Jersey who wants his own life and is willing to fight for it, even when his mother suddenly injects herself into is college life.

Roth's insights into Marcus and his depiction of Marcus's turmoil may, perhaps, reflect some of Roth's own youthful issues during the Korean War, when not attending college or leaving college meant instant recruitment into the military and shipment off to war. Marcus's feelings are carefully delineated, and his actions follow naturally from his personality and experience.

Unfortunately, the important spoiler I couldn't mention turns the novel into a tour de force for the remainder of the novel. The reader is at least as concerned with how the spoiler came about as with Marcus's own integrity. What might have been a detailed and thorough analysis of a character in his time and place takes on an element of literary trickery, somewhat limiting the reader's appreciation of Roth's efforts.

The novel is a terrific read, illustrating how one's "banal choices" can have monumental, disastrous results, but it is rather slight (and short) in comparison to many of Roth's earlier novels, which develop similar themes far more fully.

  • Amazon readers rating: starsfrom 57 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Indignation at NPR

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"Exit Ghost"

(Reviewed by Leland Cheuk DEC 1, 2007)

“In the years since the surgery, I even thought I’d surmounted the shaming side of wetting oneself, overcome the disorienting shock that had been particularly trying in the first year and a half, during the months when the surgeon had given me reason to think that the incontinence would gradually disappear over time, as it does in a small number of fortunate patients. But despite the dailiness of the routine necessary to keep myself clean and odor-free, I must never truly have become accustomed to wearing the special undergarments and changing the pads and dealing with the ‘accidents,’ any more than I had mastered the underlying humiliation, because there I was, at the age of seventy-one, back on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, not many blocks from where I’d once lived as a vigorous, healthy younger man – there I was in the reception area of the urology department of Mount Sinai Hospital, about to be assured that with the permanent adherance of the collagen to the neck of the bladder I had a chance of exerting somewhat more control over my urine flow than an infant.”

Few American writers have been as prolific and ambitious in their 70s as Philip Roth. The Plot Against America was the ultimate pleasant surprise: an unexpected and successful foray into speculative fiction by a naturalistic master. Everyman was a tightly coiled exploration of the sadness of physical aging. And after Exit Ghost, the final Zuckerman novel, Roth has yet another novel upcoming. If anything, Roth is churning out pages with accelerated urgency, digging relentlessly for new treasures in the old spots – Jewishness, sex, aging, and ambition.

Unfortunately, Exit Ghost is an argument for more selective digging. Most of Exit Ghost seem like murky outtakes from other Roth novels. Our beloved Nathan Zuckerman has been in isolation for 11 years and prostate cancer surgery has rendered him incontinent. He returns to the New York City and swaps houses with a young man named Billy and his liberal, well-endowed wife, Jamie. True to the libidinous fictional universe of Roth’s oeuvre, Zuckerman rediscovers long-lost lustful feelings for Jamie, feelings that he is no longer physically able to act upon.

Any sadness in the situation is erased by Roth’s slapdash characterization and contrived scene writing. Aside from her apparent love for tightly fitting cashmere sweaters and her hatred of George W. Bush, little is ever known about Jamie. The lengthy scene in which Zuckerman stumbles into an evening with Billy and Jamie to watch the 2004 presidential election smacks of an excuse to rip Bush’s policies. Zuckerman and Roth are more charmed by this young woman than the reader ever is. 

There is a subplot that involves Jamie’s former boyfriend, Richard Kliman, who wants to write a biography about Zuckerman’s idol, S.I. Lonoff, and expose the author’s incestuous relationship with his sister. Kliman enrages Zuckerman and he’s painted in such obnoxious strokes, it appears Roth is enraged by Kliman as well.  It’s almost as if Roth is afraid that a biographer will find some sordid secret about his life after he’s gone.

Exit Ghost’s strongest moments deal with losing control of one’s body and mind as one ages. But you can find stronger versions of similar scenes in Roth’s Patrimony. For romantic dialogue, you can pick up Deception. For generational rage, you can pick up American Pastoral. For a more effective critique of President Bush through fiction, read The Plot Against America. Sadly, Exit Ghost is a mere shadow of Roth’s best work.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 48 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Exit Ghost at Houghton Mifflin

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(Reviewed by Eleanor Bukowsky JUL 2, 2007)

Philip Roth's recent novel is the story of an unnamed Jewish man who dies of cardiac arrest. This "Everyman" grew up in New Jersey, studied art, worked in advertising, and was married and divorced three times. He spent his last few years in a retirement village, painting and teaching art to his fellow residents.

The genius of Philip Roth lies in his ability to imbue an average person's life with a universal quality that forces us to examine our own fears, values, and accomplishments. Whom do we love and who loves us? Have we made our time on this earth count? If we survive to be old, who will take care of us when we are unable to care for ourselves? After we are gone, will anyone miss us? How will we be remembered?

The protagonist was a flawed individual who treated his wives badly and neglected his children. However, he was basically kind and honest, worked hard, loved his parents, didn't smoke, and barely drank. He kept physically fit by swimming every day, which, unfortunately, did not ward off the illness that was destined to bring him so much misery.

Roth's writing is gorgeously simple and eloquent. He never presses, never goes over the top; he understands that an understated metaphor or simile is more powerful than a flashy figure of speech. When discussing his father's jewelry business, the protagonist remembers his dad saying, "Diamonds are imperishable." Alas, unlike diamonds, human existence is fragile. We sometimes hurt one another deeply, our children may abandon us, our strength gradually wanes, and our later years may turn out to be a terrifying time of illness and solitude.

However, Everyman is far more than a dirge about mortality. It is also a bittersweet and darkly humorous exploration of one person's struggles and triumphs. The hero of the novel thinks back to his joy when, as a child, his father trusted him to deliver diamonds. He remembers how he looked up to his accomplished older brother, Howie, and ponders his love of nature and particularly, of the New Jersey seashore. This is a painful and wrenching book filled with raw medical details about heart failure and physical and emotional pain. However, it is also a celebration of the human spirit. We all know that we are born to die. Yet, we get up, go to work, kiss our children, and soldier on. Roth makes the reader understand how much courage it takes just to live our lives in an often cruel, unpredictable, and treacherous world.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 144 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Everyman at Houghton Mifflin

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Bibliography: (with links to

** Philip Roth appears in novel

Zuckerman Novels:

David Kapesh Novels:


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About the Author:

Philip RothPhilip Roth was born in Newark, New Jersey in 1933. He grew up in the city's lower-middle-class section of Weequahic and was educated in Newark public schools.  He later attended Bucknell University, where he received his B.A., and the University of Chicago, where he completed his M. A. and taught English. Afterwards, at both Iowa and Princeton, he taught creative writing, and for many years he taught comparative literature at the University of Pennsylvania.  He retired from teaching in 1992.

In 1997 Philip Roth won the Pulitzer Prize for American Pastoral. In 1998 he received the National Medal of Arts at the White House, and in 2002 received the highest award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Gold Medal in Fiction, previously awarded to John Dos Passos, William Faulkner, and Saul Bellow, among others. He has twice won the National Book Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

In 2005, Philip Roth will become the third living American writer to have his work published in a comprehensive, definitive edition by the Library of America. The last of the eight volumes is scheduled for publication in 2013. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014