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Philip Roth Blows Up

At a ripe 67, he's in the throes of an unprecedented creative explosion. Thirty years after Portnoy, is literature's legendary bad boy finally ready for the ultimate prize?

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Isn't that...Philip Roth? It's Christmas Day, 1997, and George Stephanopoulos is pretty sure it is as he stares at a lean, intense man on the corner of Columbus and 79th, and the man stares back. For a split second, the two just stand there, suspended in a halo of mutual recognition, before Stephanopoulos breaks the spell. What a coincidence, he tells Roth. I just saw the President. He'd just gotten off the phone with Chelsea. She's writing a paper about you for a class at Stanford. Roth seems pleased. They exchange pleasantries for a few minutes, then part ways. Before leaving, Stephanopoulos extends his hand and tells Roth it was a pleasure speaking to the finest writer in America. * There's some dispute about what happened next. Stephanopoulos remembers simply walking away. But the way Roth tells the story -- or at least the way he told it to Roy Blount Jr. -- he waited a beat, then corrected Stephanopoulos.

"Living," Roth said.

Did Stephanopoulos just forget the punch line? Or was it a fillip of Philip's imagination? And does it even matter, considering that Roth takes a professional interest in making the line between fact and fiction one giant, fetching blur?

Ten years ago, Roth was still considered a literary troublemaker, a gleeful misogynist, a self-absorbed rake who made it impossible for an entire generation to look at liver the same way again. He was just too Jewish, too oversexed, too funny to be taken as seriously as Pynchon or Updike or DeLillo. But over the past decade, something magical has taken place. While his peers have slipped quietly into their literary dotage, Roth's powers have steadily waxed. Since 1991, he has pumped out six books with metronomic, superhuman regularity, winning five major awards, including a Pulitzer. Now, with the imminent publication of his new novel, The Human Stain, the unthinkable has occurred: Portnoy is a serious candidate for the Nobel Prize.

"Ten years ago, I would have said it was a toss-up between Updike and Roth," says Joel Conarroe, the president of the Guggenheim Foundation. "Today, I'd say he's certainly the most deserving of the Nobel Prize in America. I put him in a class with Bellow, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Faulkner. I know that sounds extreme. But both in terms of quality of work and productivity, he simply has no peer right now. He's the king of the cats."

"Whether I will ever persuade the Nobel Prize people -- and I have tried -- I don't know," sighs Harold Bloom. "He's not terribly politically correct, you know. And they are."

William Styron says the 67-year-old author has recently "possessed his writing like someone possessed." Harold Bloom, the professional gray eminence, recently teased Roth about being a modern Anthony Trollope, who used to complete one novel and start the next on the same sheet of paper. (In fact, says Bloom, he's pretty certain Roth has already finished a new 120-page novella.) "It's almost a Shakespearean outburst of creativity," marvels Bloom. "And it can only be described as extraordinary genius. There's DeLillo, there's Pynchon, there's Cormac McCarthy . . . but in terms of total design and inventiveness and originality, I'm not sure if Philip isn't the closest we have to being the best there is."

Saul Bellow, himself a Nobelist, eagerly concurs. "His writing has been different in the last few years," he says. "He seems to have organized a great many subjects in his mind, and he has prepared them quite carefully. It's just astonishing that he brings these books out one after the other, so serious and so well developed in the construction. I wish I understood it. I'm very impressed."

Back in the eighties, no one would have been bathing Roth in this kind of sunshiny praise. No one would have predicted that President Clinton, in 1998, would be handing him the National Medal of the Arts, declaring, "What James Joyce did for Dublin, what William Faulkner did for Yoknapatawpha County, Philip Roth has done for Newark." No one would have imagined that the Library of Congress, on its 200th anniversary, would pronounce him a living legend, along with Isaac Stern and Julia Child. A living legend? It would have made the young Nathan Zuckerman do pirouettes.

Actually, during the eighties, most of Roth's readers were getting a little sick of Nathan Zuckerman, the author's self-pitying, relentlessly introspective alter ego who made less progress after five books than the Malaspina Glacier has in five millennia. Roth himself thought he'd broken out of his rut with Operation Shylock in 1993. It was his bid for immortality, the crown jewel in his new three-book contract with Simon & Schuster, for which he got paid a handsome seven figures. But it landed with a thud. Michiko Kakutani called it "energetic" but concluded that the comic scenes were "overshadowed by the author's tiresome games with mirrors"; John Updike wrote a pointedly restrained review in The New Yorker, noting, "Some readers may feel there is too much Philip Roth in the writer's recent books." That hurt. A few months later, according to Leaving a Doll's House, the lurid tell-all by his ex-wife, Claire Bloom, Roth checked himself into Silver Hill Psychiatric Hospital. He told the doctors he was near suicide. They prescribed high doses of Prozac and lithium to subdue whatever dybbuk had possessed him.


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