From a remembrance delivered last May at a memorial service for Philip Roth. Taylor is a professor of writing at the New School. His most recent book, The Hue and Cry at Our House, was published in 2017 by Penguin Books.
In The Ghost Writer, narrator Nathan Zuckerman says of the novelist Felix Abravanel that the master’s charm was “a moat so oceanic that you could not even see the great turreted and buttressed thing it had been dug to protect.” Philip, too, could seem a beguiling but remote citadel: august, many-towered, lavishly defended. Those who reached the inner keep met there someone quite different from the persona devised for public purposes. Still vitally present was the young man he’d remained all along, full of satirical high jinks and cooked-up ventriloquisms and antic fun building to crescendos. Imaginary relatives were a specialty. I recall, for example, “Paprika Roth,” a retired stripper living in the Florida panhandle. A glint in the eye told you hilarity was in the offing. “Ben, do you remember when Mrs. Fischbein was on The $64,000 Question?”
“A little before my time, Philip.”
“Well, Mrs. Fischbein had walloped the competition. She’d advanced to the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question itself. Came the drumroll, and the announcer said, ‘For sixty-four thousand dollars, Mrs. Fischbein, who was—the first man?’ ‘I wouldn’t tell you for a million dollars!’ said Mrs. Fischbein.”
The place of origin, Newark’s Weequahic section, much spoken of here today, was his Great Code and Rosetta stone—I mean Weequahic as endlessly rediscovered through alchemical imagination, that flame turned up under experience for the smelting of novels. “Ours was not a neighborhood steeped in darkness,” says Zuckerman in American Pastoral.
The place was bright with industriousness. There was a big belief in life and we were steered relentlessly in the direction of success: a better existence was going to be ours. . . . Am I wrong to think we delighted in living there? No delusions are more familiar than those inspired in the elderly by nostalgia, but am I completely mistaken to think that living as well-born children in Renaissance Florence could not have held a candle to growing up within aromatic range of Tabachnik’s pickle barrels? Am I mistaken to think that even back then, in the vivid present, the fullness of life stirred our emotions to an extraordinary extent? Has anywhere since so engrossed you in its ocean of details? The detail, the immensity of the detail, the force of the detail, the weight of the detail—the rich endlessness of detail surrounding you in your young life like the six feet of dirt that’ll be packed on your grave when you’re dead.
He spent his final three weeks in the cardiac intensive-care unit at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital. Twelve days in, the attending came out of Philip’s room and said to me: “He is a philosopher, no?”
“Yes,” I said. And so it really was. Amid the general weeping he was Socratic, as if instructing us, his loved ones, in how to die. He even remembered, like Socrates, a small debt owed—to Estela Solano, his housekeeper.
Near the end he asked for a moment alone with me and said something I wrote down as soon as I decently could: “I have been to see the great enemy,” he said, “and walked around him, and talked to him, and he is not to be feared. I promise.”
There had been earlier brushes with the great enemy, any one of which might have proved fatal. Memory takes me back to Labor Day 2010. Nemesis was scheduled to appear that October. Once seated in our usual booth at the West Street Grill in Litchfield, Connecticut, which the management seemed to keep clear for him, we ordered the special soup, a gazpacho, sweet and crunchy with the local beefsteaks and cucumbers. I had a baseball question on the tip of my tongue: What was the name of “the natural,” the player shot by a lady stalker in a Chicago hotel room? He gave me an amused look that darkened into puzzlement, then fear.
Then he pitched forward into the soup, unconscious. Too astounded for anything but composure, I summoned the management. Medics appeared almost immediately. As if by further magic a stretcher sprang up from the floor to receive Philip, who though all but comatose was saying something. An attempt—entirely characteristic—at instructing the medics, it sounded like.
A moment later, I was in the front seat of the ambulance beside the driver, with Philip and the two medics behind us. “Thready pulse,” said one to the other. And then, to the driver, “Better turn on the siren.” And I thought, here is how it ends, and considered whom I would contact first. Thomas Mann’s Aschenbach and the last line of Death in Venice came to mind, proving literature matters even in an emergency: “Before nightfall,” writes Mann, “a shocked and respectful world received the news of his decease.”
Twenty minutes after our arrival at Charlotte Hungerford Hospital in Torrington, the ER physician explained that what he had suffered was an accumulated reaction to one of the drugs he’d been taking. When I entered the examining room, Philip said, “No more books.” At first I didn’t know what he meant. What he meant, I shortly realized, was that Nemesis, the thirty-first, would be his last. Thus he announced his retirement.
“You look right good for back from the dead,” I told him.
“Just so we’re clear,” he said, “I did die.” He had the sweetest smile sometimes. Now he took up the story he hadn’t got to at dinner:
In the summer of 1949, Eddie Waitkus, lefty all-star with the Cubs, the Phillies, the Orioles, and the Phillies again, was shot by a deranged admirer, Ruth Ann Steinhagen, in her room at the Edgewater Beach Hotel, to which she’d coaxed him with a letter: “I have something of importance to speak to you about.”
Good as her word, she plugged him when he came through the door. Ruth Ann’s plan had evidently been to shoot herself too in a Mayerling-style bloodbath, but she told the cops afterward that she couldn’t find the courage.
Eddie survived but never entirely got his game back. Ruth Ann reported that after she shot him he’d said, “Baby, what did you do that for?” He spent the rest of his days wondering, and died at fifty-three of esophageal cancer. Ruth Ann served nearly three years in the madhouse at Kankakee and, released to the care of family, lived uneventfully on Chicago’s North Side, turning away all queries till her death in 2012.
What proved evergreen was, “Baby, what did you do that for?”—endlessly applicable and, between Philip and me, a fresh source of laughter each time one of us said it. Is the quick of friendship here, in finding the same things lastingly funny? Because it was he, because it was I? “Such a friendship has no model but itself,” says Montaigne, “and can only be compared to itself . . . it was some mysterious quintessence.” Because it was he. Because it was I.
One of the many authors Philip read in those eight vibrant years of retirement was himself—everything from Brenda Patimkin asking Neil Klugman to hold her glasses through to Mr. Bucky Cantor instructing his playground charges, thirty books later, in how to throw the javelin. I believe he took a death-defying satisfaction in the vastness of what he’d wrought—a shelf of work augmenting the soul of the nation and built to outlast whatever unforeseeable chances and changes await us and our descendants.
“And then he hurled the javelin,” Philip wrote at journey’s end.
You could see each of his muscles bulging when he released it into the air. He let out a strangulated yowl of effort . . . a noise expressing the essence of him—the naked battle cry of striving excellence. . . .
We sent up a loud cheer and began leaping about. All of the javelin’s trajectory had originated in Mr. Cantor’s supple muscles. His was the body—the feet, the legs, the buttocks, the trunk, the arms, the shoulders, even the thick stump of the bull neck—that acting in unison had powered the throw. It was as though our playground director had turned into a primordial man, hunting for food on the plains where he foraged, taming the wilds by the might of his hand. Never were we more in awe of anyone. Through him, we boys had left the little story of the neighborhood and entered the historical saga of our ancient gender.
He threw the javelin repeatedly that afternoon, each throw smooth and powerful, each throw accompanied by that resounding mingling of a shout and a grunt, and each, to our delight, landing several yards farther down the field than the last. Running with the javelin aloft, stretching his throwing arm back behind his body, bringing the throwing arm through to release the javelin high over his shoulder—and releasing it then like an explosion—he seemed to us invincible.