Philip Roth, ranked

Good, bad, worshipful, scandalous — writer Philip Roth is making boldfaced headlines again, four years after his death. His largely acclaimed new biography and its author Blake Bailey are under fire, while publications like The New York Times are issuing fresh appraisals of his almost 30 novels and memoirs, like this and this.

This longtime Roth fan joins the chorus. I haven’t tackled all of his books but I have read his most celebrated titles, from “Goodbye, Columbus” (1959) to “Nemesis” (2010) and many in between. What follows are my five favorite Roth novels, with an obligatory postscript about a glaring omission.

 1. “American Pastoral” (1997) — Roth’s Pulitzer Prize-winner may be the best novel I’ve ever read. It’s deep, thorny, complex, timely and so rich with perception and wisdom — communicated in ferocious, passionate prose — that you’re stuffed after each sitting. But it’s not difficult. Tracing the life of one Swede Levov and his daughter’s radical political terrorism in 1968, “Pastoral” gradually becomes an epic tragedy about recent American history and our hero’s inevitable descent. A biting, indelible masterpiece.  

2. “Sabbath’s Theater” (1995) — Raunchy, stylized, rip-snortingly funny and  aggressively profane, this cathartic gush of undiluted id is Roth at his sweatiest and most swinging, a big bite of eros that “shows off his linguistic verve and his unparalleled ability to stare unblinkingly into the psyche of a depraved scoundrel,” raves one critic. Winner of the National Book Award, this feverish, in-your-face opus isn’t easy, and it shouldn’t be. What it is: crudely sublime. 

 3. “The Human Stain” (2000) — A dean of a college faculty is ousted after he makes a loaded, if ultimately benign, remark interpreted as racist. He holds a shocking life-long secret close to his vest in this, “one of Roth’s most complex moral conundrums,” which came out during similar dramas unfolding in academia and beyond. The book bristles with Roth’s fanged moralism; the writing is poignant, alive, uncompromising. 

4. “Operation Shylock” (1993) — What could have flopped as an elaborate literary stunt winds up one of Roth’s richest masterworks. “His best use of autobiography and his most incisive use of meta-techniques,” a critic writes, “the novel pits Philip Roth against an imposter, a man going around using Roth’s name and identity to proselytize about the necessity for Jews to return to Europe.” Crazy, but that’s its brilliance. Roth’s facility with form proves, again, formidable, his wit and playful intelligence on dazzling display.

 5. “Everyman” (2006)— A meditation on “one man’s lifelong skirmish with mortality,” this slim book, part of a quartet of late shortish novels, marks Roth’s return to the profoundly personal following the speculative politics of “The Plot Against America.” Haunted by death, the protagonist looks back on his life, from childhood, marriage and divorce, to old age and sickness, all the while reflecting on the inevitable — his own impending demise. Bracingly elegiac.

P.S. About that other famous book everyone so adores, the one in which the hero masturbates with a piece of liver: Don’t overestimate the frenzied gimmickry of “Portnoy’s Complaint,a worthy early volume (1969) whose onanistic perversities, both smug and farcical, fuel the novel’s shrill pitch. I like this ribald coming-of-age comedy well enough, but it’s more exhausting than exhilarating, minor Roth at its most breathlessly attention-hailing. It made him a literary star. 

Writers die. The art doesn’t.

The great authors Tom Wolfe and Philip Roth died eight days apart this month. I heard nothing about the startling proximity of the loss of two of America’s towering writers. And nothing about the theoretical third death of someone else famous when two celebrities die back-to-back. Nothing about that ghoulish trifecta.

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Philip Roth, died May 22.

If that make-believe third fatality does indeed occur soon, and he or she happens to be another English-language writer, which giant will fall? Toni Morrison? Stephen King? Alice Walker? John Irving? Ian McEwan? Cormac McCarthy? None of these literary lions are spring chickens, excuse the mixed animal metaphors.

Such morbid business is the stuff of cocktail party parlor games, slightly sick, if innocuous: King? No way. McCarthy is next, just watch. He’s 84! Or some such scintillating blather.

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Tom Wolfe, died May 14.

When a popular artist dies it makes a loud rip and a mighty hole in the cultural fabric. A sometimes-fan of Wolfe — I couldn’t get through much of his work, but “The Right Stuff” and “Bonfire of the Vanities” thrilled with reportorial breadth and linguistic virtuosity — I am a confirmed Roth acolyte. His death briefly shook me and cast me in a blue mood. Celebrity passings rarely have this effect on me. I took it personally.

Yet the sting faded, and I was gladdened to see book shops and libraries erecting proud shrines to the author of “American Pastoral,” “Sabbath’s Theater” and “The Human Stain,” small mountains of hardbacks and paperbacks as monuments to genius.

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I’ll get back around to the books, but for now I’m revisiting the PBS documentary “Philip Roth Unmasked,” an incisive portrait for the budding Rothian, a reminder of what made the novelist a colossus and worthy of the Nobel Prize that so shamefully eluded him.

I should say I was also hit harder than usual by the deaths last year of novelist Denis Johnson and playwright-author-actor Sam Shepard. Johnson was a marvel, his seminal short stories “Jesus’ Son,” the hypnotically chiseled “Train Dreams” and the haunting Vietnam epic “Tree of Smoke” funny, hallucinogenic and wildly transporting.

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Shepard, who I met and interviewed (see here), was always a personal favorite. An artist disguised as a road-weary bohemian cowboy, his acting was consistently spot-on (he was ace in the 1983 movie adaptation of Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff”) and I’m deeply partial to his 1980 play of fraternal fury “True West,” a raging comic masterstroke about bad blood, beer suds and the prickly craft of screenwriting. 

Watch it on YouTube, starring John Malkovich and Gary Sinise as riotously bickering brothers. It will, like Philip Roth at his best, knock you out. When you come to, the whole world will be a little bit different.