Big Old Jews

Once upon a time, literary giants bestrode the Earth

Saul Bellow, who's going on 85, is out with Ravelstein, a barely fictionalized profile of Bellow's friend Allan Bloom, the classical scholar and author of The Closing of the American Mind, the erudite blockbuster that ignited the culture war of the mid-1980s. The narrator, Chick (Bellow), chronicles Ravelstein (Bloom) in the last years of his life, after his book made him famous and rich and as he slowly succumbed to AIDS (Bloom was gay and closeted to all but a few intimates).

Bloom seems like a perfect fit for a writer like Bellow, who, in a great run of novels that included Herzog, Mr. Sammler's Planet, Humboldt's Gift and The Dean's December, gave us marvelously full-bodied portraits of modern American intellectuals, usually Jewish and culturally conservative, who were steeped in the slaughterbench of history, the comedy of the culture industry, and the messy soup of their own neuroses. But this book, like most of what Bellow has written since the early '80s, is a great drop-off from the stuff that won him the Nobel Prize in 1975.

Bellow has worked up a half-century's worth of goodwill among the New York establishment; now it's paying off in the form of kid-glove treatment from East Coast reviewers, maybe in deference to his advanced age. So let me just note, sotto voce, that the novel's casually magisterial style is fake, that Bellow can't deal with complex ideas anymore, and that the friendship between Chick and Ravelstein is artificial. The book is supposed to be written in the style of witty after-dinner conversation, but frankly, the thing feels smug and a little gaseous. There are a decent 50 pages at the end, where Bellow turns away from Bloom to chronicle his real-life near-death experience from food poisoning in the Caribbean, but I put the book away glad to be done with it, thinking, "Thanks for the memories."

Way back in 1960, Roth wrote that it was all American writers could do to "make credible much of American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is almost an embarrassment to one's own meager imagination." That "embarrassment" in trying to nail down American reality led him onto a wild stylistic journey over the next four decades, away from the straight moral realism of Goodbye, Columbus to absurdist cathartic outrage (Portnoy's Complaint), screaming Swiftian satire (Our Gang), Kafkan fable (The Breast), and a long-fascinating jury's-still-out-on-it detour into the bottomless pit of metafiction (the Zuckerman novels).

In the 1990s, Roth escaped the pit and returned to a sort of higher realism, and in freeing himself from Zuckerman's preoccupations, Roth has freed himself to write what might be the most powerful fiction in an already superb career. In his latest, The Human Stain, Roth marshals a relentless narrative energy, tenacious intelligence and moral fierceness to tell a story of an American—no, bigger: a human—reality that is thoroughly stupefying, sickening and infuriating but rendered with a grace and control that recall the Greek classics the novel keeps alluding to.

The story takes up the case of Coleman Silk, an aging classics professor at a liberal-arts college who is charged, wrongly, with making racist comments about two students. The ensuing scandal sets off a series of disasters in Silk's life that ultimately forces him to face a secret in his own past and identity. It's a confrontation that takes Roth far beyond the usual domain of the campus novel while making all the "identity politics" talk these days seem criminally reductive to the complexities of real people. But aside from Roth's withering analysis of contemporary hypocrisy—including the "tyranny of propriety" about sex coming from both Left and Right—there is Roth's sheer inventiveness with character and intertwining incident. In this book, we have a woman janitor, abused as a child, whose own two children are killed in a fire while she's giving head to a lover, and whose greatest dream is to be a crow. A snooty French feminist professor is secretly in love with the man whose life she's ruined. A Vietnam vet's postwar life spirals into madness. A light-skinned black man passes himself off as a Jew his whole adult life, and pays dearly for it.

Roth makes the sheer unbelievability of their (very, very American) lives totally believable—and then makes us realize (as great art often does) that everybody's life is unbelievable, that treachery, accident, the stunning consequences of desire and depth-dark suffering are our common coins, that we keep them deep in our pockets because we're as terrified of looking at them as King Oedipus, who, as soon as he had his eyes opened, found there was nothing to do but plunge daggers into them.

Roth is one Big Old Jew on a big old journey. It took him two decades, but he's finally blazed past literary self-consciousness into the kind of claritas that earns him the right to use an epigraph from that most lucid of tragedians, Sophocles. Roth is now writing at a level of intensity where the high pleasure of his style is inseparable from the soul-dense suffering you go through sympathizing with his characters. The Human Stain is a capstone to the extraordinary legacy of 20th-century Jewish-American fiction and an exhausting, irreplaceable, great book.

Mailer: A Biography by Mary V. Dearborn. Houghton Mifflin, 448 pages. $30, hardcover; Ravelstein by Saul Bellow. Viking, 233 pages. $24.95, HARDCOVER; The Human Stain by Philip Roth. Houghton Mifflin, 352 pages. $26, HARDCOVER.

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