Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Does Philip Roth Hate Houston, and If So Why Does Philip Roth Hate Houston?

Damned if we know, and it’s probably premature to raise the question, but we’re moved to ask after reading Christopher Hitchenswithering (yep) dismissal in the recent Atlantic Monthly of Roth’s forthcoming novel Exit Ghost.

Apparently Houston has a bit part in the book, not as setting but as touchstone for the pork-eating goyishe heartland beyond the metropolitan New York area that the septuagenarian novelist seems to now view with an alarmingly deluded fear and loathing, if you’ll pardon our imprecise application of that overworked phrase. In Exit Ghost Roth revives his longtime alter ego, the novelist Nathan Zuckerman, once unbound but now, according to Hitchens’ description, forced to “wear Pampers and to endure the regular humiliation of feeling sodden.” Zuckerman has left his hideaway on a Massachusetts mountaintop to return to New York “in the hope of an operation to repair his urinary arrangements” and there crosses paths with Jamie and her “slavish husband,” Billy, which is where Houston figures in. Hitchens quotes at length from a Rothian passage he finds especially uninspiring, prefaced by Zuckerman’s inquiring of Billy about Jamie’s background:
And so he told me, lavishly expatiating on her accomplishments: about Kinkaid, the exclusive private school in Houston from which she’d graduated valedictorian; about her stellar academic career at Harvard, where she graduated summa cum laude; about River Oaks, the wealthy Houston neighborhood where her family lived; about the Houston Country Club, where she played tennis and swam and had come out as a debutante against her will; about the conventional mother she tried so hard to accommodate and the difficult father she could never please ...
Hitchens continues:
The dull reported speech with which Roth economizes (so much easier to do the background of WASP-dread secondhand, rather than evoking it directly as he used to do) is limpid and engaging when set beside the great swaths of soliloquy-as-dialogue* in which the remainder of Exit Ghost is bogged down. (One of Billy’s later answers, about old and new money in the Greater Houston area, and its relation to anti-Semitism, goes on for almost two and a half pages. We are not spared further deep thoughts about country clubs. Everything is a cliché …
So it seems Roth is conveying the notion that the very upper crust of Houston, consorting behind the high walls and greenery of River Oaks and the Memorial-area villages, still nurses some Gentleman’s Agreement-style anti-Semitism, or, perhaps, is preoccupied with it. We, of course, don’t move in those circles and have no interest in defending the smug and the comfortable, of any stripe or economic station, but let us go on record here as saying we ain’t buying it.

Hitchens’ review, however, has whetted our appetite for Roth’s book, at least two and a half pages of it, and we now anxiously await what is surely the impending rebuttal of the novelist’s slander by our favorite port commissioner from the 77019 zip code.

*Although we admire Roth’s late-century trilogy, especially The Human Stain, Hitchens here hits on something that we’ve always found bothersome about the novelist. It’s why we often find our self going “Aww, nobody talks---or even thinks---like that” when reading recent Roth (us=stickler for “reality”).

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