Book Expo America was held in New York City's sterile and hard-to-reach Jacob K. Javitz Center last week, but the show's real excitement happened in restaurants, bars, apartments, and the rooftops of Manhattan, where booksellers got to mingle with authors, editors and publishers. I'm usually immune to celebrity and consequently manage to get myself into in-depth, interesting and sometimes absurd conversations with various authors at these get-togethers. Heck, two years ago, I ended up talking to Edie Falco (her uncle wrote a book) about women's shoes.
My immunity met its match when I was invited by Harcourt to a fairly small cocktail reception with Philip Roth at Cafe Gray on Columbus Circle. Two weeks before leaving for New York, I gingerly held the invitation in my hands, frightened it might spontaneously combust. I called and R.S.V.Ped immediately, and then 10 minutes later I wasn't sure if the phone call had actually taken place, so I emailed. I was like a lifelong, devout Catholic getting a chance to drink with the Pope (you know, Pope John Paul II, not the current curmudgeon). My religion is literature, and the closest thing to the divine that I will ever get is the mind of Mr. Roth.
Once at the show, I stumbled around the hot, humid show floor in a daze on Friday, glancing at publisher's booths, scrawling incomprehensible observations into my tattered green notebook and greeting friends and colleagues alike with a blank stare. I could only hope that my stare and brief mumblings were written off as the byproduct of being intensely focused on the show. But I was really in a fog, thinking, "I'm meeting Philip Roth tonight. I'm meeting the man who created Nathan Zuckerman in a few hours."
Why this adulation? I first read Roth's Portnoy's Complaint when I was a junior in college, in a seminar on Jewish American writers. I wanted to get in touch with my literary heritage, and since there weren't any seminars on Italian or Armenian writers, I was left with my Jewish legacy. The course list was basically a hall-of-fame of living Jewish writers, including Henry Roth, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, I.B. Singer, Cynthia Ozick and Philip Roth.
Philip Roth's contribution to this class, Alexander Portnoy, made me laugh harder then I ever had in my life. I read passages out loud to my friends at night. The biology and economics majors would laugh until they were snorting and tearing up, not quite believing that this novel, filled with masturbation and sexual scenes, could be my homework while they stared at equations and deciphered lab results. Short of sex, what could be a better assignment for a 20-year-old guy than reading Portnoy's Complaint? It would take me years to see the psychological mess that Portnoy was, the unhappiness that prevailed. In college, we all wanted to be Alexander Portnoy. What a glorious misery that would have been.
I began devouring Roth's books once I graduated and was no longer fettered to endless reading lists. First, I picked up Roth's newest novel at the time, The Counterlife. My God, it's as good as Portnoy even though it is completely different, I remember thinking. Roth's narrative tricks, his ability to create fiction within fiction was truly illuminating. He was like a complex, ribald Vonnegut. He was an American Milan Kundera (another writer I was reading like crazy at the time). In the end, I realized he was truly like no one else. Like Faulkner and Bellow, he was simply an American original.
Over the years, I have read and reread virtually all of his books, including the complete tales of his literary alter ego Nathan Zuckerman, starting with the Ghost Writer and clear through to his upcoming novel, Exit Ghost. My other favorites include Patrimony, his marvelous memoir about taking care of his father, and Sabbath's Theater, perhaps his funniest novel. Roth has never disappointed me. His work challenges its readers, assuming that they are intelligent, well-read people who are willing to follow him wherever he may go.
It was with all of this knowledge weighing me down that I entered the Cafe Gray. I spotted him standing by the tall windows facing Columbus Circle. I was relieved to see that he has aged better than Nathan Zuckerman, who is incontinent, impotent and somewhat memory-addled in Exit Ghost. Roth was trim, vigorous and engaged in a lively conversation. He looked wonderful for a man approaching his mid-70s. I must admit, my first selfish thought was "he's got several books left in him."
I was approached by two people at once as I started to slowly drift towards Roth. The first was his editor, Janet Silver. I have met her on a few occassions and hold her in extremely high esteem because she, of all the people in the world, edits Roth, and she is a gracious, down-to-earth, patient woman who is willing to answer a myriad of questions from nosy booksellers like me about Roth year after year. The second was a waiter carrying a tray of appetizers. All three of us converged at once and the waiter held up a tray of mushroom risotto balls for us to try.
I bit into one of the fried balls as Janet said hello. The volcanic insides of the risotto exploding into my mouth and searing my tongue, I tried to remain calm and respond to her. She offered to introduce me to Philip Roth. I nodded quickly and we spoke briefly as we crossed the room towards Roth. He was engaged in a conversation with a few other booksellers. I couldn't take my eyes off of him and felt some guilt for staring at him like he was an animal in the zoo. Here is the Pulitzer-Prize-winning author in his native habitat, I thought.
Suddenly his eyes fell on me, and we were quickly introduced. Now was my moment to speak to Philip Roth. Over the past 20 years, I have come up with hundreds and hundreds of questions that I wanted to ask him about his fiction, about his relationships with other writers, about his views on the world. But now, as I stood before him, my mind was a complete void of all of those thoughts. I held his warm, dry hand for a beat too long and said, "Thank you for all of the years of enjoyment you have given me."
He became animated and said, "But I haven't given you years, I have given you books." I mumbled a reply to the books equaling years. He asked me where I was from, and I told him Boulder, which seemingly left no impression upon him. As I was about to speak again, a waiter popped up between us with a tray of raw tuna. I looked down at the tray and when I looked back up Roth was turning to his right to meet another bookseller.
I moved back and sought the solace of the bar. I had gotten one sentence in to Roth and I had been contradicted. I had been faced, in the parlance of my youth. Well, I thought to myself as I swirled my complimentary Scotch-on-the-rocks, it was a damn stupid thing to say. You've got to be precise when you speak to the master.
As the party went on, I spoke to several other booksellers I know. Almost everyone was jazzed-up and a bit frightened to be meeting Philip Roth. Some even seemed more obsessed with him than I was. As the evening wore on, the cocktails took hold and the waiters broke into almost every conversation with their trays of hors d'oeuvres, and I became determined to work my way back to Roth. About an hour later, he was leaning with his back up to the windows speaking to a friend of mine from Arizona. I wandered over to them and gradually entered the conversation.
I asked Roth about his new book, Exit Ghost, which I was only 80 pages into, and whether it was influenced by Bellow, particularly his novel Humboldt's Gift. Zuckerman ruminates and rereads a favorite short-story-writer from his past, who he had a brief meeting with in the 1950s. Roth said it wasn't, although he thought the Bellow novel was a wonderful book and that he could see how I could have that impression in the beginning of his novel. "It goes off in a much different direction. You'll see."
Just as another waiter threatened to come between us with a tray of oversized shrimp, I moved closer to Roth and boxed-out the waiter. "I have always thought that Sabbath's Theater is one of your best books, one of the greatest novels written in the last 25 years, and yet it doesn't seem to get the same acclaim as some of your other works. Why is that?" He took a deep breath, "I agree with you," he said, "but the women didn't like it." I instinctively rolled my eyes without even realizing it, and a smile came over his face. "You roll your eyes," he said. "I do too. But there you have it."
That was it. I thanked him for his time and moved away. It wasn't a great conversation, but I held the great author's attention for a few moments. It was more than I ever got to do with the rest of those Jewish writers that I admired so much in that class. That all-star cast of living writers, with the exception of Ozick and Roth, have all died in the intervening years, and I never got to look any of them in the eye or ask them a queston.
In the end, it's Roth's words straight onto the page that are what has added so much to my life over the years. Even hours of small talk at a cocktail party in New York could never match a single page of his well-written prose for me.
A few days later, as I read Exit Ghost, I came across the following passage. It sums up, in part, how I occasionally feel about all the hoopla that surrounds books these days, including reading groups, author dinners, Oprah and even blogs like mine. It speaks to the heart of why even the greatest of events, like meeting Philip Roth, can never equal the experience of just reading. In it a character rails against the cult of personality that surrounds literature and how to rectify it.
"I'd forbid all public discussion of literature in newspapers, magazines, and scholarly periodicals. I'd forbid all instruction in literature in every grade school, high school, college, and university in the country. I'd outlaw reading groups and Internet book chatter, and police the bookstores to be certain that no clerk ever spoke to a customer about a book and that the customers did not dare to speak to one another. I'd leave the readers alone with the books, to make of them what they would on their own."
I read this passage out loud to my wife and told her that's how I feel. She laughed and said, "You love talking about literature. You do it all the time. Philip Roth probably doesn't even think that."
She was right, of course. The passage is part of a ranting letter to the editor written by a woman suffering from a brain tumor that has made her mentally unstable. Still, it was something to think about. I continued reading the book, and for the next hour I was lost in a creation from Philip Roth's mind -- true heaven.