In conjunction with his review of the PBS documentary Philip Roth: Unmasked, our critic John Powers offers this list of his Roth favorites with brief commentary on each:
I could easily suggest 20 books that I think well worth anyone’s time, but here are my favorites (in chronological order):
Goodbye, Columbus (1959): Although less strong than what follows below, here’s where it all began. Roth hadn’t yet fully found his voice, but even in his mid-20s, the quality of his perceptions was dazzling.
Portnoy’s Complaint (1969): Gleefully obscene, this zeitgeist-rocking novel about masturbation, sex, and Jewish family life is one of the funniest books in the language.
The Ghost Writer (1979): The opening volume of the great Zuckerman Bound tetralogy, this novel introduces us to Roth’s best and most frequent alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, who gets involved with a literary lion a la Isaac Bashevis Singer and a girl who might secretly be someone very famous.
The Counterlife (1986): As intricately crafted as a Faberge music box, this brilliant piece of meta-fiction finds Zuckerman and his dentist brother Henry grappling with huge questions – not just life and death, but the state of Israel.
Patrimony: A True Story (1991): The most bleakly touching of his books, this memoir presents the story of the life and death of his father Herman Roth with a gaze that is loving but unsparing.
Operation Shylock: A Confession (1993): The real (meaning fictionalized) Philip Roth is haunted by a Philip Roth impersonator who’s traveling around Israel ruining his good name – naturally Roth winds up involved with an intelligence mission.
Sabbath’s Theater (1995) Perhaps the greatest of his novels (if not the most beloved), this is the riveting story of Mickey Sabbath, an unemployed puppeteer with a libido the size of the Statue of Liberty. Funny and hard-edged, this radical book is an apache dance between eros and death.
American Pastoral (1997): The first and best novel of his history cycle (which includes I Married a Communist, The Human Stain and The Plot Against America) this is the moving story of a good man destroyed by what happened in America during the 1960s, from the Vietnam War to the kids driven mad by it.
Portrait of Philip Roth by Oscar Mitt