That Philip Roth is one of the best writers alive may not be up for debate. There are those who might not be fans of his long-winded style, as well as many who believe his writing is chauvinistic. But even most critics of his work acknowledge his enormous stature in the modern American canon; he has the awards to prove it, including a Pulitzer, two National Book Awards, and a PEN/Faulkner Award (though still no Nobel!).
And yet there are so many readers that detest Roth, some of them (I have learned) without ever having read him before. So, my advice: Roth haters may find a better path of engagement through his first novel, the oft-overlooked, rarely-mentioned Letting Go. [UPDATE, 10/9/11: In case you doubt that it’s overlooked, case in point: this little blog post on my unknown blog is the sixth Google result for a search of “letting go roth.”] Gone are the graphic, lurid sex scenes. Gone the ruminations on old age and male sexuality. Goodbye to the extended discussions of deteriorating health that he has stuffed into his latest slim volumes (Everyman, Exit Ghost, The Humbling).
After his first book, the short story collection (plus title novella) Goodbye, Columbus, came Letting Go, in 1962. It was his first novel. It’s a restrained story of domestic life and academia in the austere 1950s that centers on Gabe Wallach, a young English professor and clear prototype for Nathan Zuckerman, who would come later. Gabe carries on a strange relationship with a colleague, Paul Herz, and Paul’s volatile young wife. Roth tells the story slowly, in no rush, in over 600 pages. Interestingly, it remains his longest book.
Roth makes the book’s more muted story—I say “muted” in comparison to more overtly intense plot drama and tension in books like The Human Stain (racism) and American Pastoral (terrorism)—nonetheless riveting by not only attaching the reader to the protagonist early on, but also through exuberant dialogue.
And interestingly, there isn’t strictly one protagonist. It’s Gabe, sure, but huge sections are told from the perspective of Paul, Libby, and Martha.
During one exchange in which Paul’s uncle Asher urges him not to marry the girl he loves because she is not Jewish, Paul’s fury rises along with our own, thanks to the sick, ignorant things that Asher tells him. “How can you talk like this? You don’t even know the girl,” Paul says. “This girl’s got a background on her you don’t even begin to understand,” Asher counters. “She’s got a family that probably this minute is churning gall over you.” The reader develops a fierce loyalty to Paul, and that feeling is even more innate if the “marrying someone Jewish” problem is one of personal experience.
Letting Go is by no means a page-turner, but after a slow start, love for its characters (not only Gabe, but fierce, strong Martha, and even the problematic, burdensome Herzes) keeps the story moving.
And I’d venture to say that Letting Go was a precursor (perhaps one that will remain un-credited) to the hyper domestic realism of Franzen’s Freedom. Before there was Franzenfreude, there was Roth mania.