Laughing till I can’t breathe with the great American novelist
Philip Roth is a New York street treasure. I see him strolling 57th Street and the Upper West Side. The only place to begin a short rumination about him is with a quote from the greatest American novel of the last century:
I’ve got a typed and autographed page of Portnoy’s Complaint framed on my wall. It cost me $75 about fifteen years ago. It’s the best art I have.
I don’t mean to brag, but I’ve eaten food with the master writer five times. I know him a little. When I first dined with him and a mutual friend, he made me laugh so hard my stomach cramped from lack of oxygen. Who knew that laughing was about exhaling without inhaling? I got lucky and spilled gazpacho on my shirt (never a tidy eater), thus an excuse to rush to the bathroom, lean against a sink and inhale deep gasping breaths.
The second time I met him, I was visiting the same mutual friend. Roth was accompanied by a gorgeous brainy woman—no makeup could have made her more lovely. She was a divinity school graduate. My friend whispered that she was the person Roth had modeled “the monkey” on. (Remember the annoying bimbo in Portnoy’s Complaint) This now seemed a cruel sexist trope by a master of male interior life.
The next time Roth appeared, he and my friend began playing. Roth assumed the persona of my friend’s whiny Jewish mother and masturbated my friend’s black umbrella with his thumb and forefinger. In a kvetchy falsetto, he scolded my friend for being a bad son. First of all, why was there a woman in his apartment in the middle of the afternoon.
I laughed (exhaling too much) and excused myself to inhale like crazy again in the bathroom.
Our most recent meeting took place at a bagel joint on 57th street. There he was, standing in front of me and ordering the bagel with scallion cream cheese made of soy. Your Manhattan Voyeur is an introvert who prefers watching people to talking to them, but I couldn’t help tapping Mr. Roth on the shoulder. Yes I accosted him. “Please join me for lunch,” he responded, bowing self-mockingly toward the narrow counter.
I was a nervous wreck.
“Healthy choice,” I said hoarsely, “the soy cream cheese.”
“That’s why I’m here,” he said, adding “but Susan isn’t it too late for me?”
“No” I said, utterly disarmed.
I didn’t tell him I’d read Claire Bloom’s book about bewildering tricks he played to break up with her. Nor did I mention the man selling signed Philip Roth paperback novels near Zabar’s, whom I badgered into confessing that he was Philip Roth’s brother. I mentioned one of my non-fiction books—coincidentally the story behind Roth’s masterpiece American Pastoral.
He didn’t make me laugh this time, but I became manic listening to his insights. I ran titles for my book by him. He chose the best one.
“The aristocracy of the left,” he said. “Use the word aristocracy in an adjectival way.” The book is Family Circle: The Boudins and the Aristocracy of the Left.
Roth doesn’t tell the whole truth. Our mutual friend had told me that sometimes, when Roth sits down to write, his right arm becomes paralyzed.
“No, no, no,” said the venerable Mr. Roth, with fond nostalgia. “Years ago, I occasionally got mild elbow pain and saw physical therapists. But each time I’d console myself by bringing home a different physical therapist.”
I once read a gossip column sternly condemning Mia Farrow for poor taste in men after she was spotted dining cozily with Philip Roth in Connecticut. What the columnist clearly doesn’t know is that—all other things aside –Philip Roth and Woody Allen are the two funniest most entertaining men I’ve ever spoken to.
For some women, entertainment value trumps other attributes.