MONDAY, NOVEMBER 14, 2005 – Copyright The International Herald Tribune
SANTA MONICA, California Not to cast aspersions but, with all the furor over performance-enhancing drugs, it’s remarkable that Philip Roth’s name hasn’t surfaced.
Just last week the baseball player Rafael Palmeiro avoided perjury charges, but his career achievements have been irreparably tarnished. Not so Roth. In fact, since turning 60, an age when most renowned writers start having trouble making stuff up, Roth has written, arguably, four of his finest novels.
Is he juiced or merely the beneficiary of superior genes? No one can – or will – say for sure.
However, as Roth closes in on several of Dostoevsky’s records, whispers are circulating through the literary community. One writer, who requested anonymity to avoid seeming cranky, whispered, “Since I came out with ‘Bonfire of the Vanities,’ I’ve written two novels. Roth has churned out, what, 12? Do the math.”
Roth’s bulked-up output is not the only factor raising eyebrows. Most notably, his sentence structure has shown no signs of the usual age-related deterioration cited in medical literature.
At 64, some eight to 10 years after most writers betray noticeable passive voice, Roth completed his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “American Pastoral” (1997). One of the book’s astonishing sentences began with the words, “Only after strudel and coffee,” and ended nearly a full page later without even one dangling modifier.
No less a talent than James Joyce (in one of his more piquant observations) said: “By the age of 45, I knew I could no longer start a sentence with a mention of strudel. My fingers would want to do it but my mind just wouldn’t react.”
In addition, Roth’s continued graphic depiction of, and obsession with, sexuality is seen by some as another indicator that he may be doping. Even D.H. Lawrence, by the age of 42, tended to write less about sex and more about supper. Yet, Roth’s “Sabbath’s Theater” (1995) and “The Dying Animal” (2001) were rife with carnal observations usually associated with novelists freshly called up from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
Roth’s defenders point out that he lives in an age of superior mental conditioning, allowing him to extend his productive years well beyond those of Cervantes or the Grimm Brothers.
In addition, Roth has never fallen into the kinds of traps that have cut short the careers of others. He has displayed none of the draining machismo of Norman Mailer. He is never haunted by his childhood like Eugene “the Real Deal” O’Neill. He has no reputation for the late-night carousing favored by the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Truman Capote.
Finally, technology in the form of “spell checker” and the “light bulb” have given Roth an advantage over, say, Rousseau. Some feel it would be foolish of him to forgo such labor-saving devices simply to maintain fair comparisons to the early romantic.
“Writing is hard,” said one famously blocked author, who requested anonymity in order to keep her publisher believing she died 12 years ago. “You look for any edge you can get.”
And yet, the dull hum of innuendo may become an annoying hum as volumes of Roth’s work are reprinted by the prestigious Library of America.
In an irony befitting the writings of O. Henry and Jose Canseco, much of the criticism for this controversy could ultimately land at the feet of that august imprint, whose testing has been so notably lax that Hunter Thompson repeatedly came up clean.
Thus far, Roth has been spared the kind of public denials to which we’ve grown accustomed. When a bottle of Allegorical Growth Hormone turned up in a Nebraska junior high school creative writing class, Roth was almost conspicuously not asked to comment on his status as a role model.
In short, Philip Roth simply lets his writing speak for itself. As one literary agent said: “You can dope me up all day and I ain’t going to write ‘Good-bye Columbus.’ So when the time comes, I, for one, will write in Philip Roth for the Time magazine 100 Best Authors issue.”