The Great American Novel(ists)

GbyeColumbusI read Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint – found on my parents’ bookshelves –  as a teenager and I have read Philip Roth ever since.  A great novelist and a great American political novelist; what a line up: American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, The Plot Against America, The Human Stain, Everyman. 

Here is the intoxicating, bewildering start of The Prologue (The Great American Novel):

CALL ME SMITTY. That’s what everybody else called me – the
ballplayers, the bankers, the bareback riders, the baritones,
the bartenders, the bastards, the best-selling writers
(excepting Hem, who dubbed me Frederico), the bicyclists,
the big game hunters (Hem the exception again), the billiards
champs, the bishops, the blacklisted (myself included), the
black marketeers, the blonds, the bloodsuckers, the
bluebloods, the bookies, the Bolsheviks (some of my best
friends, Mr. Chairman – what of it!), the bombardiers, the
bootblacks, the bootlicks, the bosses, the boxers, the
Brahmins, the brass hats, the British (Sir Smitty as of ’36), the
broads, the broadcasters, the broncobusters, the brunettes,
the black bucks clown in Barbados (Meestah Smitty), the
Buddhist monks in Burma, one Bulkington, the bullfighters,
the bullthrowers, the burlesque comics and the burlesque
stars, the bushmen, the bums, and the butlers. And that’s only
the letter B, fans, only one of the Big Twenty-Six!

Philip Roth was for me an intro to other modern male American novelists including Saul Bellow and Joseph Heller (the classic line from Good as Gold – “Even that fat little fuck Henry Kissinger was writing a book”), Richard Ford, Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, and Cormac McCarthy. I have never been keen on either John Updike or John Irving, and David Foster Wallace is quite unreadable. It is not a contest but among British male writers perhaps only Salman Rushdie, John le Carré and Martin Amis come close.

The time of the great white males is fortunately over: it is wonderful that today there is such a diversity of contemporary voices.


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