cover image Philip Roth: The Biography

Philip Roth: The Biography

Blake Bailey. Norton, $45 (896p) ISBN 978-0-393-24072-6

Biographer Bailey (Cheever) brings his talents to bear in this remarkable portrait of lauded and divisive literary titan Philip Roth (1933–2018). Roth was born in Newark, N.J., in “perhaps the most anti-Semitic decade in American history” and was, according to his father, “an all-American boy who loved baseball.” The Roth that Bailey brings to life is a complex mix of confidence and self-doubt; Roth became the youngest winner of the National Book Award and, Bailey writes, questioned “the whole concept of what a novel was, or what he himself was supposed to be as a writer.” Bailey tirelessly unpacks the real-life inspirations behind Roth’s fiction, shedding light on an early girlfriend who inspired Brenda Patimkin in his 1959 debut Goodbye, Columbus and the romantic fling who became a character 30 years later in The Human Stain. Bailey doesn’t shy away from Roth’s dark side, notably his self-involved nature and tendency to let “old griefs and resentments fester.” In consistently luminous, humorous prose, Bailey vividly evokes Roth as a writer and a man­—Roth would, for example, spend “the odd weekend” in 1964 with his girlfriend, and “by Sunday afternoons... would be almost beside himself: ‘You have to leave now! I have to work!’ ” A stunning feat, this is as dynamic and gripping as any of Roth’s own fictions. Photos. Agent: Shane Salerno. (Apr.)