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The caricaturist and the master: On Wolfe and Roth

The American writers who died within days of each other were both iconoclasts, one was quintessentially Jewish
Author Philip Roth poses for a photo in the offices of his publisher Houghton Mifflin, in New York, Sept. 8, 2008. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, file)

The recent deaths of Philip Roth and Tom Wolfe within hardly a week of each other may likely invite inevitable comparisons. In meteoric careers that both overlapped and diverged, they influenced a generation of Americans writers and captivated the public with styles and subjects that were as innovative as they were distinct. Wolfe was the journalist who wrote like a novelist, thus his virtual invention in the 1960’s of the New Journalism that used novelistic techniques in nonfiction writing. Roth teased readers of his novels with the “facts” of his life, imagined or real, creating a permeable line between fiction and autobiography. Wolfe, who came from the world of reporting, famously boasted that truth was not only stranger than fiction but, with a little enhancement, better to read; that in its new morphology of “faction” as practiced by Wolfe and his cohort, it would “wipe out the novel.” Roth was there to demonstrate otherwise.

There is certainly much to compare. Both writers were virtual contemporaries – Wolfe, who died at 88, was three years older than Roth. Their careers emerged on the literary scene within a few years of one another. Roth won a National Book Award in 1960 for his story collection “Goodbye Columbus.” Wolfe rose to fame in 1963 with his pyrotechnic take on California car culture, “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine Flake Streamlined Baby,” for Esquire magazine. Both writings generated controversy, which helped put their authors on the literary map. Wolfe’s “literary journalism” raised eyebrows – and concerns – from traditional newsmen about the accuracy and objectivity of what they considered his subjective style. Roth’s send-up of the assimilated Jewish Patimkin family in “Goodbye Columbus” together with his treatment of Jewish characters in another story, “Defender of the Faith,” earned him brickbats from some of the Jewish faithful. This paled before the outrage that greeted “Portnoy’s Complaint,” in 1969. The image of a sexually driven Jewish male obsessed with the pursuit of shiksas hit a nerve with a Jewish community still sensitive to the charge of Jewish sexual predation that was a trope used by anti-Semites in their war against the Jews with its baleful consequences in the immediate past.

Roth inherited the literary mantle of his Jewish predecessors Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud, who bestrode much of America’s literary world from the 1960’s to the 1990’s, with John Updike as Shabbos Goy. Wolfe chose to shun this club and start his own by inventing a new form that not only excluded such outdated literary types but would leave them in the dust. Along the way, he inspired such new journalists as Hunter Thompson, Truman Capote, Gay Talese, Joan Didion and the Jewish emissary, Norman Mailer.

Both Roth and Wolfe were enfants terrible, offending social proprieties, upending literary assumptions, liberating themselves and their métiers from conventions of the past. Wolfe happily decimated the pretensions of limousine liberals in “Radical Chic” and stuck pins in the balloons of the art-world establishment in “The Painted Word.” He asserted that writers of modern fiction had forsaken their primary task of depicting the social reality of their time in the spirit of Dickens and Balzac; that in effect, they were navel-gazing, and that his new journalism was a true successor of these novelistic progenitors. Roth would insist that he was indeed reporting, except that the subject was his alter ego and that his searing analysis spoke to the larger concerns of society.

At the height of their fame, Wolfe and Roth virtually crossed paths with one another. Wolfe would leave nonfiction to embark in 1987 on the social novel, his “Bonfire of the Vanities,” which skewered the foibles of the hedonistic 80’s, while Roth emerged from his overheated inner self to write a series of memorable historical novels, from the elegiac “American Pastoral” (1997) to the prophetic “Plot Against America.” (2004). But in effect neither man strayed too far from his True North. Wolfe’s most heartfelt work of nonfiction was “The Right Stuff” (1979) about the storied test pilot Chuck Yeager. “Bonfire” was a satire on the failure of a decadent American power elite to live up to the standards and ideals personified by Yeager. Like most satirists, Wolfe was a moralist. But his strength was caricature. If he were a painter, he’d be Hogarth flagellating the depredations of London’s Gin Lane or depicting the declensions of “The Rake’s Progress.”

Roth may have depicted innumerable rakes but, he painted them as a Rembrandt, giving them a richness and texture that Wolfe, for all his journalistic skills, could not emulate. Both men had an extraordinary comic flair, an unerring ear for the vernacular and formidable powers of observation. But Wolfe’s gift was more disengaged; he kept his distance from his characters who are well drawn, to be sure, but somehow calculated, given the subjective intent of the writer. Roth’s characters – often emanations of himself – are totally immersed: self-flagellating, self-defiant, insatiable and unforgiving.

It is said that Roth’s greatest character is Philip Roth, in the guises of Nathan Zuckerman, David Kepesh or any of his other fictional aspects. But equally, Tom Wolfe’s greatest character is Tom Wolfe, whose style was not just literary but sartorial. The flamboyant prose and the apparel to match were all part of a projection that was as much manner as substance. Tom Wolfe’s finely stitched writing merged into his three-piece suit. He was an iconoclast who became an icon. Roth was also an idol-smasher but his weapon was not an image but the word.

American author and journalist Tom Wolfe, Jr. in his living room during an interview about his latest book, “The Kingdom of Speech,” in New York,July 26, 2016. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

Over the years, both men maintained their outsider bona fides while receiving their share of honors and awards. The difference was perhaps that Roth, who could have done well as a stand-up comic, was a Tummler, Wolfe was a Troubadour, a different sort of entertainment.

Wolfe’s satire could be at once tongue-in-cheek and over-the-top, but it was essentially esthetic. Roth, at his best, was angry, funny, visceral. He was not a moralist but an author whose writing had a moral dimension. And the writer who started out as the bad-boy of the Jewish world became, in time, the most Jewish of American writers.

Jack Schwartz was a former editor of Newsday’s Book Section

About the Author
Jack Schwartz is a former book editor of Newsday.