Philip Roth, like God, has become notorious for his reluctance to appear. Although he has been the most hosannaed writer of the decade, he failed to show up to accept his National Book Award for Sabbath's Theater or his Pulitzer for American Pastoral. I sat through two grueling, Synagogue-like hours of the National Jewish Book Awards Ceremony, only to be chagrined that Roth found a stay-at-home-sick excuse to ditch his Lifetime Achievement acceptance. (Portnoy would've been proud.)
But now Roth has uncharacteristically organized an advertisement for himself. At the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in his native Newark, Roth assembled a panel of well-wishers including Princeton Dissent-er Sean Wilentz, ex-Voice provocateur Stanley Crouch, and current Times polymath Edward Rothstein and ordered them, King Learstyle, to sing his praises. But taking his cue from the Zuckerman etiquette handbook, Roth, who planned to be on hand for the event, summoned the chutzpah to skip his own Festschrift, choosing instead, the story went, to help a friend teach a class on American Pastoral.
And so the largely geriatric NJPAC crowd was treated to its own class on American Pastoral, which subjected the guest of honor to a roasting he probably wouldn't have received in person. David Samuels the self-described "Yeshiva Boy" of the panel drew a distinction between the upstanding, ready-forWilliam Shawn sanitized Roth and the bad boy Samuels dubbed "Saturday Night Phil." Meanwhile, Crouch shot from the hip to zero in on the missing link in American Pastoral's historical sweep, calling the book a "flawed masterpiece," because it failed to "address the American Negro."
Rumors circulated that Roth was actually incognito, lurking in the shadows, braving the exegesis with silence, exile, and cunning. His no-show might have confirmed ex-wife Claire Bloom's exposé of him as a thoughtless egomaniac in her memoir Leaving a Doll's House. But, as Roth's alter ego Zuckerman says of himself, "You are not in the virtue racket! Never were! Great mistake ever to think so!"
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