Fans of the work of Philip Roth will devour Claudia Roth Pierpont’s accomplished critical biography, Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books, but even readers less taken or less familiar with the work of this great American novelist will be held sway by this beautifully rendered study, which places the Pulitzer Prize winner’s impressive body of work within the context of his life and times. Pierpont, who is quick to point out in her introduction that despite her middle name she is not related to the writer, nonetheless does know Roth personally, and has, over the past eight years, engaged him in intimate and intense conversations about books, politics and life. This easy access to her celebrated subject makes the book something more than a routine critical study and something less than a biography—an interesting hybrid that examines Roth’s development as a writer and a man through the work itself.
Any longtime reader of Roth’s books knows that they have been inconsistent—often brilliant, of course, but just as often deeply flawed (especially the ones bookended by two of his best, Portnoy’s Complaint and The Ghost Writer). Admirably, despite their friendship, Pierpont does not succumb to false flattery, and if a book warrants an appraisal such as “a headache-inducing farce . . . a giddy mess” (The Great American Novel), she calls it as she sees it. Yet there is no denying that even Roth’s failures have been interesting experiments, and one of the strengths of Roth Unbound is how it elucidates the source of Roth’s particular imperfect genius.
The work is explored chronologically, from the early stories that made Roth a writer to watch (he won the National Book Award for his first book, Goodbye, Columbus, when he was still in his 20s), to the late short novels, such as Everyman and Nemesis, written in his 70s. In looking at both his writing and his life, major topics recur: what it means to be a Jew, America’s political legacy, Kafka and, of course, sex. Pierpont’s analysis, though, moves far beyond the themes usually associated with Roth’s work, to deepen our understanding of his collective opus. She suggests that Roth be viewed not as a Jewish-American writer but simply as an American one. It is an important distinction, and Roth’s mature work, including American Pastoral, The Human Stain and The Plot Against America, certainly bears out her assertion.
Roth has often been judged an autobiographical writer, with main characters like Zuckerman, Kepesh or Portnoy seen as thinly veiled avatars of the writer himself. Pierpont points out when the parallels are apt and when the fiction diverges from the truth. Roth admits, for example, that Portnoy’s relationship with his quintessentially Jewish mother does not mirror his own, but rather, to some extent, his brother’s. While Roth’s disastrous early marriage—he was duped into wedlock by false claims of pregnancy—provided the bitter (some would say misogynistic) fodder for some of his early, lesser books, Pierpont demonstrates it was after he let go of that bitterness and crafted an alternative fictional scenario in the Zuckerman books that Roth hit his stride as a writer.
Roth took an unusual step for a writer, announcing last year that he was retiring and would not be writing any more books. Time now for the career assessments to begin. Pierpont, a staff writer at The New Yorker who adopts that venerable magazine’s freewheeling and highly readable style, is first out of the gate with Roth Unbound. It is an impressive book that will be the lodestar for any Roth biographers yet to come.