The Fatal Handjob

James Wolcott – The New Republic

Copyright The New Republic
College students today, showered with condoms and tastefully preserving their drunken, tonguetapping escapades on Facebook and MySpace for future in–laws and employers, have no appreciation of the sacrifices made by those who came before, the lusty pioneers of the sexual revolution. They take for granted the blowjobs and easy lay-ups made possible through the guerrilla activities of forgotten combatants in the early, undeclared stages of America’s war for erotic independence. For such uninformed fun bunnies, Philip Roth’s strange new novel may be the perfect back-to-school gift. The protagonist of Roth’s latest javelin throw is one such unsung contributor to the eventual overthrow of puritan restraint, an aspiring scholar who earns a minor footnote in the unwritten annals of oral and digital gratification. Roth’s designated patsy doesn’t actually do that much to light the fuse of the sexual revolution. In fact, he doesn’t do anything except lie there in dazed amazement while his date treats him to something special. But every person occupies the solar center of his own story, and although this character’s life may not amount to much, it’s all he has; or had.
Meet Marcus Messner, the son of a Newark butcher and a portrait of the artist as a young grump. Just as the author’s note for Indignation presents a partial litany of the many literary honors Roth has received (“He has twice won the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. He has won the PEN/Faulkner Award three times”), the fruits of unflagging industry and undeviating dedication (“He is the only 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”–eight volumes!), his teenage narrator has his nose pressed so hard to the grindstone that it shoots sparks. In contemporary parlance, Marcus is a grade queen. “Delivering orders and flicking chickens and cleaning butcher blocks and getting A’s so as never to disappoint my parents.” Disappointed his parents are not. They dote on their boy, beaming like Herschel Bernardi and Shirley Booth in an old Playhouse 90-ish Bronx-naturalism kitchen-sinker. “‘You don’t know how proud of you he is,’ my mother said. ‘Everybody who comes into the store-“My son, all A’s. Never lets us down. Doesn’t even have to look at his books–automatically, A’s.”‘” Pure osmosis! …
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