I’m stalking Philip Roth. OK, maybe stalking overstates it—I haven’t crosshaired him through a scope—but I’m definitely creeping and staring, prowling like a borderline case with a hunting wound. Since I spotted America’s Greatest Living ex-Novelist crossing Seventy-Ninth Street, I’ve been bloodhounding him around the Upper West Side. Roth has announced that he’s done writing books, kaput after more than thirty volumes, and I feel like I’m shadowing Babe Ruth to Cooperstown, though, astonishingly, it’s a private parade among passersby latched to tiny screens. On Eighty-Sixth Street, a bundled elderly couple whispered recognition, but that’s been the extent of it on busy sidewalks in the exposure of a bright Sunday. Philip Roth, invisible?
Roth stops at a red light, and I hang back, trying desperately to figure out what I’m going to say if I step up the pace. I’m also confused about where we’re going. It’s brunch time, and we just moseyed past Barney Greengrass. I’ve got a whitefish sit-down on the brain; Roth could salt his arteries into rebar with herring if he could still command a booth. We’re so close together now, if he were listening, the Bard of Newark could hear the gears turning in my head.
When I first moved to New York, in the early nineties, I lived in the building next to Roth’s and had two run-ins that confirmed I’d arrived in writing Mecca—or, maybe, hell. As I was walking my roommate’s nutty terrier on an inviting day like today, Roth and I exited our front doors simultaneously and crossed paths on the sidewalk. Splendidly dressed in a pressed tan suit and patterned tie, he looked right through me and the dog with the bloodless glare I knew from his book jackets. I’ve read everything you’ve written, I was primed to blurt, or, more nakedly, Here I am! Fortunately for both of us, Roth’s fright mask cooled my hysteria. We passed again a week later, and I was iced by the same freeze-out—the tailored suit, the bald eagle death stare, the degrading silence. Where else but New York City could this happen? I gushed to myself after Roth strode off to vaporize other wannabes. This caliber of humiliation would not have been available if I’d stayed in New Jersey.
Twenty years later, Roth walks south on Amsterdam without hesitation, though at a more Floridian pace than when he last shunned me. He’s eighty now, so the shuffle is understandable but a jolt to see in the flesh. Much has changed in the decades since I last sighted him. Mailer, Vonnegut, Heller, and so many other icons from The Age When Writers Roamed New York have departed the city for eternity. This living legend, sheathed in his suede coat, passes a row of outdoor cafes like a woolly mammoth, and not a single head turns. No shout-out for the author who made liver a sex partner? It’s like watching the Stones play “Satisfaction” to an empty house. Yes, I’m aware of the studies documenting the historic plunge in the number of Americans who read serious literature, and, in interviews, Roth himself has doomed literary fiction to fall into a cultural sinkhole, perhaps imminently with his retirement. But, what I’m after can hardly be called cerebral. This hunt is an act of aspiration, ambition, predation, kinship—the animal instincts that brought literary carnivores like Roth to the big city, where they twinkled under the lights and made spectacles of themselves in public and inspired rubes like me to follow their paths to Gomorrah.
I understand, now, what has led me on this expedition today. This isn’t stalking. Call it “literary reputation management” for the City of New York—the last shot of recognition before we become Houston. Sure, a bunch of writers named Jonathan have colonized Brooklyn, but they live with the sobriety of ornithologists. Would I really have moved here from the sticks to emulate guys whose idea of a wild time is playing speed backgammon?
The bacon-infused-maple-syrup crowd I see in the cafes doesn’t jump at Roth, once notorious as the Enemy of the Jews. What writer in America today is an enemy of anyone?
We’ve circled back to Roth’s block, and I can’t walk any slower without stopping dead. If this is the end, I won’t let it go without a proper literary kaddish. The cars are moving fast up the avenue. Roth waits at the corner crosswalk, and we’re shoulder to shoulder, standing alone on the curb cutout.
“Hello, it’s good to see you again,” I say and work up a dumb smile.
Roth shoots me the chilling glare, a man still in full possession of his awesome and terrifying faculties. He wants no part of me, of this; he never has. Time, which can be a heartless companion, hasn’t diminished his blinding presence. So, in the moments before the light will change and we leave as ghosts, I imagine the conversation I came for, searching for Roth’s substratum, as Zuckerman did to the Swede in American Pastoral, to try and learn what happened.
“I’ve always admired your writing,” I say.
“And I’ve always admired your stalking.”
“Clever, but I came here for something else.”
“Pity, I can’t help you.”
“Why not? Zuckerman had Lonoff; you had Malamud,” I say, a fool pleading to put flesh on a memory.
“It’s much too late for that,” imaginary Roth says. “I’m done. Besides, I killed off you and that dog ages ago. Didn’t you get the message then? Why don’t you try something else? I hear they have speed backgammon in Brooklyn.”
“How could you write without a heart?”
“Never a problem. It’s the prostate that’s a bitch.”
“Jesus Christ, twenty years and I’m still giving you the best lines.”
“Then, stop. How do you think I wrote all those books?”
“On my best days.”
The light changes, and Roth crosses the street. We’re going our separate ways.
“So,” I yell in his direction over the traffic. “Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?”