Philip Roth, 1933-2018

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Image via Showbiz411.com (of all places).

Philip Roth died last night. He was 85.

I don’t have much to say to add to the appreciations and accolades he’s received in death, as he did in life. Baseball writer Bill James once noted that Hank Aaron ended his career with a brilliant “finishing kick,” piling up home runs in what should have been his waning years to surpass Babe Ruth. Roth, too, had an amazing finishing kick: In his last 20 years as a writer — after he turned 60 but before he finally put the pen down for good in 2012 — he wrote “Sabbath’s Theater,” the amazing “American Pastoral,” “The Human Stain,” “The Plot Against America” and “Everyman.” Roth should have been rewarded with the Nobel Prize, but for whatever reason — anti-Americanism, distaste with the accusations of Roth as misogynist (ironic, given the reason there will be no Nobel Prize for Literature this year), simple dislike of his work — he never got the award.

It’s the Swedish Academy’s loss. Everybody knew Roth ranked as one of the greatest writers in the world, and perhaps — along with Toni Morrison and Don DeLillo — the greatest living American novelist, period. The Nobel would have been a mere rubber stamp, if an incredibly valuable acknowledgement.

I’ve probably read just under half of Roth’s books, and I’ve rarely failed to be bowled over, even with slighter works such as “Indignation.” Simply put, the man could write, and his later works had an energy — a distillation of force, rage, empathy and, yes, humor — that I could only envy.

“American Pastoral,” in my opinion the greatest Roth novel, bursts with such power and fluidity that I sometimes felt I was inhaling it, particularly his exacting scenes of glovemaking in Newark (how does someone learn about that lost trade and describe it with such poetry and precision?) and the appearance of Swede Levov’s daughter as a squalid Jain. I’ve always felt the book falls apart during the closing dinner party, full of Levov’s ruminations, but the material before that is among the greatest I’ve read.

“The Plot Against America” is painfully prescient and “Everyman” is a gorgeous, if melancholy, eulogy.

I haven’t loved it all. I was bored by the Zuckerman books, particularly the one largely set in Eastern Europe. And I’ve put off reading others — “I Married a Communist,” notably — because … well, his books can be heavy, and it’s easier to deflect.

(Of course, they’re also brave. In “The Facts,” he talks about his feelings upon hearing that his ex-wife — a troubled woman who caused him much grief — has died. He was thrilled, freed of alimony payments and practically skipping home, if I recall correctly. Roth often used his life as a jumping-off point, fictionalizing many elements to the point where the reader wondered if he was writing memoir or simply playing with literary convention or both, but this has the ring of truth.)

For a Jewish (and American) male, I came to Roth late. I never had to read “Goodbye, Columbus” in high school and didn’t really get into him until the ’90s, though I’d read “The Counterlife” and “The Great American Novel” years before. (I should pick those back up … but I say that about a lot of books. I’m just now reading “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” for the first time in 30 years!) He was an author I always admired; in his later years, though, he became undeniable.

When I was at CNN, I desperately wanted to interview him, but his publisher’s PR rep couldn’t convince him. He apparently expected interviewers to be highly conversant with his work, and he had a narrow set of news outlets he talked to — The New York Times, NPR, the Guardian. CNN (or CNN.com), he probably felt, wasn’t in their league.

He was probably right; he would have had to announce he was fucking Britney Spears to move the needle on traffic. Even then, the average CNN.com reader would likely have wondered what this Roth fellow did for a living. (I seem to recall that Saul Bellow’s obituary was one of the most poorly read stories the day it appeared, and even Gabriel Garcia Marquez probably did well only thanks to international users.)

Anyway, the giant is gone. May his memory be a blessing — and may the rest of us never look at a “maddened piece of liver” without laughing.

 

 

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Review: ‘Born to Run’ by Bruce Springsteen

Born to RunBorn to Run by Bruce Springsteen

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow. Bruce Springsteen can write.

Sure, anyone who’s paid attention to the career of the man who wrote songs such as “Adam Raised a Cain” or “Spare Parts” or “Hungry Heart” (“Got a wife and kids in Baltimore, Jack / I went out for a ride and I never went back” – there’s a whole tale in two lines) or – of course — “Born to Run,” knew Springsteen could tell a story. Forget the songs; he would devote long portions of his concerts to hypnotic monologues.

But “Born to Run,” Bruce’s memoir, still caught me by surprise. The man can really, really write.

Rock ‘n’ roll memoirs, even good ones, usually give you stories of touring and recording while skimming over the actual lives of the authors. Graham Nash’s book is full of marvelous tales of the Hollies – he and Allan Clarke had known each other since they were kids – but somehow remains cautiously distant. (And the stories of Crosby, Stills and Nash are generally tedious.) Rod Stewart’s book is humbler than I expected, with plenty of good humor, but it’s disposable. Keith Richards’ “Life” offers more revelations about his guitars (and, to be fair, his grandfather) than about his inner core.

That’s OK; it’s not like I expect a great deal of self-reckoning from these books. If you want novelistic examination, you’re better off with a biography by someone like Peter Guralnick or Philip Norman — and even they wade carefully into their subjects’ psyches.

But Springsteen never lets himself off the hook, and he has the gift of describing his soul with, well, soul.

Music is just the beginning. For Bruce, music is the very air he breathes, the food he eats, the lifeforce itself. For him, it’s always 1965, he’s in a big American car, and the AM radio is playing the hits. He shares his loneliness with Roy Orbison, bonds with Steven Van Zandt over bar bands and jukeboxes, and lets Jon Landau tutor him in the origins.

Still, it’s when he puts music aside that “Born to Run” really sings. Springsteen talks candidly about his struggles with romance – how he’d get to the three-year mark in a relationship and head for the exit. His matter-of-fact memories of his first marriage, to Julianne Phillips, shiver with doom:

… The bedside lamp caught a glint of my wedding ring. I’d never taken it off; something inside of me told me I never would, never should. I sat on the edge of the bed, gave it a light tug and watched as it slid off my finger. An ocean of despair swept over me and I felt faint.

(Of course, anyone who listened halfway closely to his 1987 album “Tunnel of Love” knew the marriage was on shaky ground.)

Then there are the battles with his father, the taciturn and troubled Doug Springsteen, who’d come home from work and sit, silent, at the kitchen table, his son helpless (or furious) to reach him. It’s a familiar picture for anyone who heard one of Bruce’s concert monologues, but in “Born to Run” the relationship is a spectre that haunts the entire book – not least because Bruce apparently inherited some of his father’s depressive illness.

About that depression. I don’t think even William Styron offered such a visceral take on the subject. It’s a surprise when Springsteen first brings it up – this rock ‘n’ roll beast, this joyful, passionate performer, has been in therapy for more than 30 years – but as he grows older, richer and wiser, he seems like he’s handled it.

Then, in the book’s waning pages, as he enters his sixties, it returns with a vengeance: first mostly keeping him in bed for more than two years, then after some recovery causing a crash. “For the first time, I felt I understood what drives people toward the abyss,” he writes. “The fact that I understood this, that I could feel this, emptied my heart out and left me in a cold fright.”

I’ve been there. I’ve seen others go there. But I never imagined Bruce had walked that path.

None of this is to imply that “Born to Run” also isn’t as jubilant as the “pulling out of here to win” close of “Thunder Road.” Bruce offers sharp character sketches of Mike Appel, the motor-mouthed manager made of equal parts faith, bravado and music-biz underhandedness; Danny Federici, the organ-playing savant; and any number of forgotten pals from his early Jersey years. Bruce, of course, hasn’t forgotten at all.

The book is also shot through with Springsteen’s never-say-die determination, the kind of heart that allows him to play in crummy bars and empty bedrooms, never losing sight of the mountain peak. His resolve in the face of his insecurity is enough to make you nod your head when he talks about the do-or-die nature of the “Born to Run” album, which came after two well-received but poor-selling LPs. Hell, it took him until the early ‘80s to start buying things like a rock star, so deep in debt – and so wary of ending up back in the spare bedroom of the surf shop where he’d spent the early ‘70s – was he until “The River.” Indeed, even now, when his daughter is a dressage champion and he’s well established in the rock ‘n’ roll pantheon, he talks about remaining close to his working-class roots.

He’s also a fan: A scene late in the book, when he gets to sit in on a Rolling Stones rehearsal, is every “Satisfaction”-playing hopeful’s fantasy come true – and it’s Bruce’s, too.

All along, you can feel the hunger for connection that Springsteen has always craved. It’s there in his band, it’s there in his concerts, it’s there in his marriage and family – and it’s there in this book. Human beings, Springsteen insists over and over again, are fragile; it’s the electricity in our souls that makes us more than we are. Without that, we’re just skin and bone.

“Before he passed, I stood over my father and studied his body,” he writes. “It was the body of his generation. It was not shined or shaped into a suit of armor. It was just the body of a man.”

The brilliance of “Born to Run” is that, for his father and Bruce and everybody else, that’s just a part of a beautifully written story.

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Review: ‘Avid Reader’ by Robert Gottlieb

Avid Reader: A LifeAvid Reader: A Life by Robert Gottlieb

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I wish I could be more enthusiastic about “Avid Reader.”

You’d think Robert Gottlieb would have a rich life to draw from in his memoir: a Manhattan childhood; an early, perfect job as an editor at Simon & Schuster; an even more perfect job as the editor-in-chief at Knopf; editor of the New Yorker; and relationships with dozens of the century’s most famous writers, including Toni Morrison, V.S. Naipaul, Robert Caro, Joseph Heller and John le Carre.

But, to steal a line from another review on Goodreads, Gottlieb could have used a good editor.

“Avid Reader” starts out reasonably, with Gottlieb’s descriptions of his distant parents and his experiences at Columbia and Cambridge. There are hints of joy, stray bits of sadness (a rushed first marriage in particular) and the confidence of a man who, once he finds his course, plans to follow it with energy and devotion.

Which, frankly, he does. But he leaves the rest of us behind.

The problem, to me, is in Gottlieb’s bloodless style. “Avid Reader” reads like one of those drippy Bob Colacello Vanity Fair articles about wealthy WASPs or European nobility, with the tone of an overly pleased man who wishes to convey how wonderful life is for his elite friends while avoiding making any waves so he can get invited to the next party or return unscathed to his comfortable life.

So everybody is dear and talented and handsome and admirable and interesting and charming, and his family and their families spend vacations together, and he’s been friends with them for 20 years, or 30 years, or 40 years, or until they die, at which point he gives a pleasant eulogy.

Even his critiques come off as quibbles: Michael Crichton “wasn’t a very good writer,” more interested in machines than people; Katharine Hepburn was needy; William Shawn was sad. (He does get in a sharp poke at Shawn’s mistress, Lillian Ross, whose book “Here but not Here” “embarrassed everybody but herself.”) This is generous of Gottlieb – and Lord knows I’d rather have a kind-hearted observer like him than an axe-grinder like Michael Wolff – but the overall effect is breezy and shallow, with no details on how he figured out advances and print runs, shaved words from “Something Happened,” or dealt with most of the New Yorker writers.

He does offer useful glimpses of many people, but they’re just that: glimpses, like brief scenes caught from a fast-moving train.

It’s not like Gottlieb doesn’t have material to work with. At one point he underwent classical Freudian analysis, visiting an analyst four times a week. But he reveals little and when his therapy is done, so is he with the subject.

Or his occasional trips with pretty assistants. These are all platonic, he says, and I have no reason to doubt him; his wife, he mentions at one point, doesn’t like to travel. (And they’ve been married for more than 40 years.) But he’s almost too casual in the way he brings it all up. And as for his long marriage, about the only rough times we’re exposed to have to do with his son, who’s on the spectrum. But even that works out after a few pages. No guidance, few musings, little pain.

No soul-baring, in other words, for better or for worse.

I wish I could be more generous about “Avid Reader.” I still admire Gottlieb’s work – the list of the books he edited would make an excellent course on 20th-century literature. And the book is certainly well written. But it may have been better served as a magazine article (ironically, it was condensed to one in Vanity Fair) or an appearance on a talk show.

Even there, Gottlieb would probably fall far short of one of his mentions, the raconteur Alexander King – though, given the usual seven minutes and three anecdotes, few would notice. The short form may have been the best form for “Avid Reader.”

Sorry, Mr. Gottlieb. May I suggest you talk to Terry McDonell?

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Tom Petty, 1950-2017

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(Update: Petty died Monday night.)

Tom Petty was the world’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll fan.

Most rock musicians are fans, of course. That’s why they become rock musicians. John Lennon idolized Elvis Presley; Kurt Cobain was fond of Black Flag. But Petty both wore his love of music on his sleeve — and got to be friends with his heroes.

He and the Heartbreakers got to back up Bob Dylan — and then he was in a band with Dylan (and George Harrison, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne). Petty and the Heartbreakers later backed up Johnny Cash. And Petty, ever the fan, was genuinely pissed that pop and rock broadcast radio became boring and flat. That wasn’t what he signed up for. (He later created his own show, much like his friend Bob.)

Tom Petty is in grave condition. Earlier today, CBS News reported that he’d died after apparently suffering a massive heart attack Sunday night, less than a week after concluding the Heartbreakers’ 40th anniversary tour.

But as of 4:35 p.m. ET TMZ said Petty is still “clinging to life,” though he’s off life support and not expected to live past today. I hope TMZ is both right and wrong. CBS, now citing the LAPD, has pulled back on its obituary, and others that ran with the news are now backtracking, too.

He’s always been a fighter.

I could never say I was a hardcore Petty fan, unlike friends who have all his albums and were working his songs into their setlists 30 years ago. (Fans beget fans, the wonderful way of the world.) But I loved much of his music. “I Need to Know” is still a model of a balls-to-the-wall single (the fact that it couldn’t get into the Top 40 is criminal); “Love Is a Long Road” pours out both desperation and a touch of hope; “Girl on LSD” is the kind of absurd toss-off that’s all too uncommon in our smug and cynical times.

He could be passionate. Years before “The Last DJ,” it was Tom Petty who fought his record company from raising the price of what became the LP “Hard Promises” to $9.98. Petty was going to retitle the record “$8.98,” then the standard list price for albums, if he didn’t get his way.

He got his way.

His hero-friends, half a generation older, seemed to treat him like a welcome, impish younger brother. I’ve long felt, fairly or not, that it was Petty who gave Dylan his sense of humor back after that sometimes dour mixed bag of early-’80s albums. I don’t know that Dylan would have worked in a reference to Joe Piscopo on “Infidels.”

I also think it was Petty who was the secret weapon in the Wilburys, though this was a group with a world-class voice and a ukulele collector.

Then there was Petty the quiet observer. The best example of this Petty is “To Find a Friend,” off 1994’s “Wildflowers.” It’s as muted and finely wrought as a Raymond Carver short story:

In the middle of his life
He left his wife
And ran off to be bad
Boy, it was sad
But he bought a new car
Found a new bar
And went under another name
Created a whole new game

(Tom, I’ll forgive you for using “quiet as a mouse.” You knew what you were doing.)

I remember reading an article about Petty learning the craft of songwriting. I’m probably screwing up the timeline (and the story, for that matter), but what I recall was a Petty at loose ends after Mudcrutch, his earlier band, had broken up. So he’d sit with famed producer Denny Cordell, who’d signed him, and listen to record after record. Cordell would explain structure and musical choices, and Petty lapped it up. (Having colleagues like Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench didn’t hurt his education.) He wore those lessons on his sleeve long after he became a platinum-selling artist and created his own distinctive sound — passionate, a little funny, humane.

After all, he was a fan.

Todd plans, God laughs

I’m typing this on my phone, so forgive the lack of links and polish.

The reason I’m typing it on my phone is that I have no wifi. Even if I did, I wouldn’t be able to type it on my easier-to-type-on iPad because I can’t find it. I think I left it in my overnight bag back at the hotel — this after checking the room at least twice to make sure I wasn’t leaving anything after a week’s stay. 

I should back up. I’ve moved to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, to take a job with Lutron, the lighting control technology company. My last weeks in Atlanta were hectic and anxiety-ridden, not least because I was leaving a place I’ve called home for most of my life, and also because — despite being quite conscious of my decisions — realizing how little control I had over the situation, emotionally and otherwise. I was at the mercy and schedule of movers, realtors, bankers and Georgia State University, where I was teaching. About all I could do was make sure the cats were squared away, keep my wife (away on a fellowship) informed, and hold on. 

Time was going to move whether I liked it or not.

So I gave my final, I let the movers do their thing, I closed on the Atlanta house, I picked up the cats and headed north. I had decent weather and the cats were well behaved. I got here last Saturday and checked into a Staybridge Suites in advance of my first real week at Lutron. (I actually started in March, but knew I was headed back to Atlanta for six weeks.)

The work was fine. But I also closed on my Bethlehem house, a twin built in 1907. It’s been well cared-for, but you still can’t compare it with a modern residence built in 1992. We had an amazing and large kitchen in Atlanta; here there’s barely enough cabinet space for glasses and plates. Our master bedroom had plenty of space and an adjoining bath; this four-bedroom place has one bath, total. (We’re planning/hoping to add a second, but see the title of this post.) We chose it for location — it’s walkable to downtown — and knew what we were getting, but still …

Anyway, aside from the mountains of boxes, the house has taken on a smell. The next-door neighbor says a skunk must have gotten under the porch, or maybe he got in a fight there. Either way, the stink ranges from annoying to bad. I called a pest control guy, but he can’t get here until Friday. I’d open the windows, but the skunk mating (presumably — apparently this is the season, and if the female doesn’t like the male …) has coincided with a cold snap.

Meanwhile, I can’t find the green bag that contains the iPad. I could swear I threw it in the car, but I don’t see it in the house, and I put everything down in the same area. There’s a possibility it’s buried, but I’ll bet I left it — which means, goodbye, iPad. (Yes, “Find my iPad” is activated, but it only works if it’s online, which it’s not.)

And then there’s the endless unpacking. I haven’t even started on the books yet. I swear this time I’m going to get rid of most of them. Moving is hard enough without toting around dozens of boxes of books you’ve read — or may never read. I’ll let the libraries take over.

Anyway, I’d say things can only get better, but I’m Jewish, so I’ll assume nothing. (Next steps include changing my car license and registration, but Pennsylvania’s car registration rules are onerous — a non-laminated Social Security card? I’m lucky I know where my SS card is! Fortunately, not with the iPad bag.)

The cats are enjoying things, though. And they’re a joy to watch. And next week Sarah will be here — as will the ISP guy. 

Incidentally, isn’t it time we make internet as easy a utility as water or electricity, in that you just call and they just switch the name?

Addendum, Sunday, 11:01 a.m.: I found the bag! It was, indeed, buried — and in a corner where it hadn’t been before. Yes!

A not-so-Trivial conclusion

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Trivia at Manuel’s Tavern, late 19th century. That’s me on the right.
Time only goes forward, but memory goes backward. So, as the days count down to the arrival of the moving van, I’ve been trying to look forward — packing up books, throwing away paper, making preparations — while attempting to avoid a confrontation with my emotions, which are mulling over the past.

It’s been largely pointless.

I’ve been in Atlanta for 26 years, not to mention my formative college days, and emotions come with the territory. I want to be upbeat as I open the new door — it’s an adventure, right? — but I’m all too aware of the one swinging behind me.

So it’s with some dread that I approach Sunday night’s Team Trivia at Manuel’s Tavern, my final show.

I can’t overstate how much of a rock Trivia has been. I arrived back in Atlanta the weekend of April 20, 1991 — almost exactly 26 years ago — and one of the first things I was told about was this “trivia game at Manuel’s.” So I spent that Sunday evening with (in my memory) my old Emory friends Tim and Alec at the Tavern. We won, too.

A year later I was hosting, and I’ve been hosting ever since.

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Au revoir, Atlanta

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Image from Atlanta magazine.
I came back to Atlanta in spring.

It was April of 1991, and I was still recovering from wounds inflicted by pieces of a broken heart. (I write this with apologies to my girlfriend at the time, who succeeded the one over which my heart was broken; she was instrumental in reawakening my soul, for which I’m eternally grateful.) Atlanta was where I had gone to school in the ’80s and stayed for a bit, working at a downtown hotel, feeling rich from the regular wads of tips I made as a bellman (which, in reality, probably added up to less than $15,000 for the year — but my share of the rent was $162.50 a month) and hanging out with friends from college. Some were figuring things out. Others had yet to graduate.

Four years later, some had left and returned; others had never gone away. I needed a place to start anew. I had $500 to my name and bills for many times that amount, but I felt comfortable in Atlanta. It seemed to fit.

And so I loaded my life into my car and drove back down I-85 into its hopefully welcoming arms.

Twenty-six years later, I’m getting ready to leave. I have a new job in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania, and though I’m looking forward to it, I can’t say it’s been easy to prepare.

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The story in the attic

I’ve been slowly — very slowly — making my way through the house and alternately getting rid of some stuff and packing other things in advance of my move. It’s been eerie and melancholy.

I filled five bags full of books to take to a trusted local shop, and I felt like I was pulling out fingernails. Last night I went through my CD racks to weed out discs that have been thoroughly burned or seldom listened to, and still I felt like I’d chipped away pieces of my soul.

I would not get along with Marie Kondo.

But what’s been more sobering, in some respects, was finding old documents I’d completely forgotten about. There was a time — a time before journalism became my full-time job — that I thought I’d be a fiction writer. I was never very prolific, but apparently I was more disciplined than I recalled. In memory, until taking a creative writing course during my fellowship year at Michigan, I hadn’t written a short story since college. (Side note: Amber Hunt, your photographs are always welcome sights on the KWF page.) But in reality, apparently I was doing more than that: Among the papers I found in the attic was a short story I’d written around 1993. Attached to it was a rejection letter from The New Yorker.

I have no memory of writing that story, or sending it off to The New Yorker.

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Really short entry, WTF edition

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I’ll just post my tweet here, because I’d just repeat it:

Though, well, it bears repeating: What … The … Fuck? Guaranteed Rate Field? Even Finazzle Field, my suggestion for the Braves’ new ballpark, would be better. (“SunTrust Park” is merely bland by today’s standards.)

If I were commissioner, I would require all ballparks to be named after cities/neighborhoods, teams or people. Enough with the 20-year naming rights contract crap.

Next thing you know, they’ll be giving bowl games names like R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl and AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl. Oh, wait.

(Late) Sunday read: They don’t say, ‘Work ball!’

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Image from Twitter.

Today is baseball’s Opening Day. It’s changed a lot since I first started following the sport; back then it was usually on Tuesday and always started in Cincinnati, in honor of the city’s status as the first home of a professional team. Now it’s on Sunday so ESPN can get a big audience, and one of the games will feature the Yankees, because we don’t see the Yankees enough the other 161 games of the year.

(Tonight’s marquee game is Cubs-Cardinals, the National League’s version of Yankees-Red Sox.)

The New York Times has a wonderful piece on six baseball lifers — a coach, an umpire, a pitcher, a slugger, a hitter and (my favorite) a broadcaster. Dip into it; it’s my Sunday read.

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