laughing till i can't breathe with the great american novelist
by susan braudy
philip roth is a street treasure. we see him strolling 57th street and the upper west side. the only place to begin a short rumination about him is with a priceless quote from the greatest american novel of the last century:
"she was so deeply imbedded in my consciousness that for the first year of school i seem to have believed that each of my teachers was my mother in disguise. as soon as the last bell had sounded, i would rush off for home, wondering as i ran if i could possibly make it to our apartment before she had succeeded in transforming herself. invariably she was already in the kitchen by the time i arrived, and setting out my milk and cookies. instead of causing me to give up my delusions, however, the feat merely intensified my respect for her powers. and then it was always a relief not to have caught her between incarnations anyway-even if i never stopped trying?"
i've got a signed and typed page of portnoy's complaint framed on my wall. 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, not inhaling? i got lucky and spilled gazpacho on my shirt (never a tidy eater), thus giving me 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 when roth popped in. they began playing. roth assumed the persona of my friend's whiny jewish mother while masturbating my friend's black umbrella. in a kvetchy falsetto, roth scolded my friend for being a bad son. first of all, he had a woman in his apartment.
i laughed (exhaling) and excused myself to inhale like crazy again in the bathroom.
our most recent meeting took place at a take-out bagel joint on 57th street. there he was, standing in front of me and ordering the bagel with scallion cream cheese made of soy. i accosted him. i couldn't help it. "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 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 on her. nor did i mention the man selling signed philip roth novels near zabar's, whom i badgered into confessing that he was philip roth's brother. we discussed my non-fiction book-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 helped me choose the best one.
"the aristocracy of the left," he said. "use the word 'aristocracy' in an adjectival way."
roth doesn't tell the whole truth. our mutual friend told me that sometimes, when he 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 a different therapist home."
susan braudy is the author and journalist whose last book, family circle: the boudins and the aristocracy of the left, was nominated for a pulitzer by publisher alfred knopf.