Philip Roth died Tuesday night at age 85, about a week after Tom Wolfe's death.
Roth was a pure novelist and masterful short story writer whose work stands among the highest achievements of American literature. As with Wolfe's journalism, Roth in books like "Portnoy's Complaint" and "Sabbath's Theater" expanded the American language and the possibilities of writing.
Like great American writers from Mark Twain to William Faulkner, Willa Cather, John Updike and Saul Bellow, Roth found in the small culture in which he grew up universal stories significant to a range of readers. Like other great writers, he invented comic, vivid characters who represented the full gamut of human experience.
In his "Plot Against America" and his brilliant critical discoveries of Eastern European writers before the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Iron Curtain, Roth warned against an authoritarian regime taking over the United States.
While his alarms turned all too real with the election of Donald Trump, Roth's warnings were inaccurate in one degree: in one of his last public writings, Roth expressed amazement at Trump's ignorance and venality. Roth's Charles Lindbergh was intelligent. and a true hero. Trump is a fool, coward and con man.
I revered Roth as a courageous writer championing art, the freedom of expression and the author's duty to speak the truth. His misogyny repelled me, and his language at times seemed too brilliant, too expressive.
While acclaimed by critics, his "American Pastoral" and "I Married a Commmunst" I found too oppressive to finish. While I got lost in the books' long, brilliant discursive passages, his sentences seemed relentless, needing air and sunlight.
"Portnoy" was one of the liberating reading experiences of my lifetime, and I loved the early stories in "Goodbye Columbus," and several of the Nathan Zuckerman books.
"Sabbath's Theater" made me shudder as if encountering a crazy person on a city sidewalk who made me want to cross the street. While considered a late falling off, for pure reading entertainment I loved his last books "The Human Stain," "Indignation" and, especially "Nemesis," an artist's farewell that I found as lovely and captivating as "The Tempest."
Roth's death echoes his alarm about our country's peril under a lunatic authoritarian regime. More and more, the Trump administration is like a contemporary Gilbert and Sullivan farce with a deranged emperor at the center, controlled by flattery and acting by whim, delusion and impulse.
When Roth was introducing American readers to Eastern Euroepan writers like Milan Kundera and his "Unbearable Lightness of Being," Roth pointed out that even in the age of Reagan, American writers had the luxury of doing their work without fear of government repression. Kundera and others writing under the shadow of communism were true heroes, Roth said.
Now American writers, artists, comedians and journalists find themselves rushing toward the gulag.