Until he was felled by a debilitating illness at 86, Herman Roth was a vigorous, blunt former insurance company manager full of wry charm and amusing stories. In Patrimony, American author Philip Roth has written an unabashed tribute to his father, who died of a brain tumor in 1989 at age 87. While Roth’s memoir is a kind of deathwatch, documenting the last year of his father’s life, it is also a chronicle of his own agonizing sense of impending loss. Direct, emotionally engaging and unexpectedly funny, it is everything the author’s previous book, Deception—a teasing novel about adultery and postcoital intimacy—was not.
The humor in Patrimony does not shock, as it does in the author’s riotously funny novel of sexual neurosis,
Portnoy’s Complaint (1969). Patrimony is gentle, accepting—and charitable. At one point, Roth describes an evening of chamber music for the retired Jewish men and women of his father’s Florida condominium. A quartet of elderly musicians played a demanding Haydn piece, and Roth writes that their performance “was as alarming as it was heroic, as though these four aging people were trying to push free a car that was mired in the mud.”
The audience, meanwhile, grew inattentive. “Directly in front of me,” the author says, “a nicely dressed old woman . . . was discreetly writing out cheques. ... It was better than paying her bills upstairs alone.”
Throughout the book, Roth introduces figures who were central to his father’s life. They include his second wife, Lil, whom he married after his wife Bessie—Roth’s mother—died in 1981, and who stoically bore the brunt of his relentless criticism. There is also Herman’s old friend, Bill Weber, who claimed to hear First World War marine band tunes played inside his teeth. One of the funnier passages describes a dinner party where Roth was asked to read and comment on a novel written by a fellow dinner guest, a Holocaust survivor. In howlingly bad prose, the man’s unpublished manuscript detailed his sexual escapades with women who protected him during the war.
The ghosts of aunts, uncles, cousins and,
particularly, Roth’s mother also make their presence felt. The author describes Bessie Roth as “the repository of our family past, the historian of our childhood and growing up.” When Roth learned of his father’s brain tumor from the doctor, he drove to Elizabeth, N.J., to tell him. He took a wrong turn, however, and
ended up instead at a cemetery. Although he had not been consciously searching for it, Roth writes, “I had flawlessly travelled the straightest possible route from my Manhattan hotel to my mother’s grave and the grave site beside hers where he was to be buried.” The episode is a striking example of the closeness that Roth feels for his family, both the living and the dead.
The most formidable presence in Patrimony is Herman Roth himself, who, according to the author, received the news about the dangers of operating on his tumor with a “worldly-wise, heartbroken smile that said, ‘But of course.’ ” At the same time, he was defiant, with no intention of dying and certainly with no desire to soften his harsh judgment of those who failed to measure up (Ronald Reagan, he said, learned only to “sleep and salute” in his eight years as president). But Herman saved his
greatest scorn for mortality itself, wreaking revenge on it through memory, as if by recollecting in precise detail the streets and longgone buildings of Newark, N.J., his home town, he could extend his life indefinitely. Roth
writes: “You mustn’t forget anything____To be
alive, to him, is to be made of memory.” Patrimony, too, is an act of memory—and of appreciation for a man whose life was filled with hard work, financial struggle and, above all, feeling. Recalling the night the author was bom, Herman said: “Three in the morning. The main staircase of the hospital. Ira was in his white gown. I said to him, ‘What is it, Ira, Phyllis or Philip?’ And he said, ‘It’s Philip, Herman. Another boy.’ ”
In quoting such passages of eloquent simplicity, the son pays homage to his father’s influence on him as a writer. But Herman’s battle indicates that the father’s courage—and sense of duty—influenced the son’s life, as well. Recounting his own brush with mortality (an emergency quintuple bypass in the midst of his father’s ordeal), Roth says that at first he avoided telling his father to spare him the worry. Later, his mouth paralysed by the tumor, Herman managed to tell the author in a kind of helpless fury: “I should have been there.” Throughout the memoir, Roth makes clear that his true patrimony was his good fortune in having a remarkable father for a teacher. The book, the latest in a career full of searchingly intelligent works, is further evidence that the son has not squandered that inheritance.
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