Big Old Jews

Once upon a time, literary giants bestrode the Earth

Last year, critics got all adrenalized by a book of short stories by a young Jewish writer named Nathan Englander. For the Relief of Unbearable Urges was a strong, sturdy debut, but what got people riled up as much as Englander's impressive emotional range and command of craft was the promise that he could become the Big New Jew.

For readers with memories that go back a few decades, a Big New Jew would bring relief for that unbearable urge called nostalgia—for a time in the 1940s and 1950s when American literary culture seemed to emanate from a single center. That center was New York City, more specifically the intellectual ferment surrounding The Partisan Review, Commentary, and a loose band of Jewish writers who, because they applied themselves to literature with the patience and concentration that their forebears applied to the Talmud, because of their street-kid exuberance and savvy, because of their nearness to the suffering of the Holocaust, and because of their marginalization from the Anglo establishment, seemed perfect exemplars of what it meant to be modern American artists.

The Big Old Jews were a daunting group: among fiction writers, you've got Saul Bellow, Delmore Schwartz, Bernard Malamud, Grace Paley, Isaac Singer, Norman Mailer, and a little later Cynthia Ozick, Joseph Heller, Philip Roth and E.L. Doctorow; among critics, there were Lionel Trilling, Harold Rosenberg, Alfred Kazin, Irving Howe, Susan Sontag and Leslie Fiedler. Two Nobel Prizes sprang from this group, plus numerous Pulitzers and National Book Awards.

But at least half of them are gone now, and, anyway, by the late 1960s, "the red-hot vacuum" (Ted Solotaroff's phrase) of mass culture's buzz, clang, yack and spin had begun to suck out the center of this group's dominion, leaving them fragmented and America with a cultural discourse that's spread all over the place: a theory-weary academy, cable babblers, Oprah, United Colors of Benetton.

As the new century opens, Roth and Bellow have new novels, and Mary V. Dearborn's biography of Mailer is out. The best parts of the biography take us back to those heady days after the big war when Greenwich Village apartments were filled with on-the-make artists spilling their whiskey and sodas while spouting Freud and Kafka, when postwar prosperity and its deluded forms of patriotic idealism butted heads with Cold War nuclear terror, existential alienation and "the absurd," and when the Big Jews, in European-style novels of ideas like Bellow's Dangling Man and Mailer's Barbary Shore, attempted to patch together some coherence out of Modernism's tattered coat.

Out of all the Big Jews, Mailer was the one most out there, using drugs to sharpen his already edgy perceptions, practicing Reichian psychology (the orgasm as psychic panacea), creating an original (and sometimes off-the-charts weird) radical Leftism that gave ideological ballast to the 1960s revolution, and living his ideas to the hilt: a few years after his infamous "The White Negro" essay—which, among other things, lauded the existential bravery of killers—Mailer stabbed his second wife at a party.

This incident (for which his wife refused to press charges) unfortunately inflames the point. Mailer lived his ideas, as dangerous as some of them were, out of a conviction that this was an American writer's duty. The writer, with a Hemingway-like psychic and physical courage, needed to live in the marrow of a monstrous, plague-ridden culture so bent on killing the spirit through bureaucracy, technology, mass media, plastic, pharmaceuticals and the general disdain capitalism held for the redeeming human qualities of sex and the imagination that extreme countermeasures, in life and literature, were necessary.

In Mailer's case, that meant all manner of radicality. He demonstrated and got arrested, ran for mayor of New York City in 1969 (finishing a respectable fourth, despite a Dadaist campaign), made "existential" and sometimes pornographic experimental films, helped found The Village Voice (the OC Weekly wouldn't be here without him), and, as Dearborn convincingly argues, revolutionized journalism, making it New, with "Superman Comes to Supermarket."

Mailer's ego was such, however, that his great dream was to hit "the longest home run in the history of American letters," as he put it, to pen the Big Novel he kept promising (but never delivered), but his best work is still the great nonfiction prose of Advertisements for Myself, Cannibals and Christians, and Armies of the Night, where the swirling energies of his personality served as a vortex through which the larger convulsive energies of postwar America thrillingly entered and were transformed.

Dearborn, conventionally liberal, isn't comfortable with the vital Mailerian metaphysics outlined in those books—a wholly un-P.C. Manichean spiritual vision that sees God in breakthrough sex and spontaneous acts of will, and the devil in repression, cancer and the smell of badly digested shit—so the biography never gets sufficiently inside its subject. The book is certainly "professional" and does some good readings of Why Are We in Vietnam?, among others, but it's finally tepid: Dearborn doesn't seem to realize what she's got on her hands, namely a man whose life not only touches on almost every major cultural change in postwar America but also signifies an American spirit so monstrous and sublime that maybe its symbol ought to be Mailer's God and devil fighting it out in the toxic mists of a burgeoning mushroom cloud.

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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