Unable to combine love and sensuality his men read like textbook cases out of Freud's essay on “The Most Prevalent Form of Degradation in Erotic Life.”However painful this feeling of victimization can be for the man, for a writer it can be peculiarly poisonous if it prevents hire from granting full reality to his characters and from getting any distance on the troubles of his protagonist.The wife Maureen might as well be a creature from Mars: Peter‐‐and Roth—haven't clue about whet makes her tick, or why he stays and collaborates with her.
Maureen Tarnopol, who hooks Peter unto wedlock and maneuvers prodigiously to keep him there, is of course the chief tormentor; she plays the female‐monster role assigned to the mother in Portnoy's Complaint” but here the hero can't muster a grain of love to qualify his sense of outrage.
Maureen has the same dramaturgical genius as Sophie Portnoy, the same histrionic powers of manipulation, persistence and emasculation.
(He especially lacks any political savvy.) As a satirist of middle‐class Jewish life in Newark or the suburbs he is brilliant and wicked, endowed with a perfect ear and a cold eye, a bit like the early Mary Mc Carthy.
And faced with the traumas of family life and the conflicts of the mental and moral life in “Portnoy,” Roth can be not only funny but lyrical—emotion recollected in hysteria—with the poignance of one who is so miserable he can only crack jokes.“My Life as a Man” is a kind of sequel to “Portnoy” in a different key, giving a “real life” account of what happened to the young writer when he fell into marriage and trouble in his mid‐twenties.
Unable to abolish the demon through his work or even to describe it convincingly, though it dominates all his waking thoughts, Peter turns to direct autobiography in a desperate gesture of exorcism.
Perhaps the “facts” will speak for themselves and provide relief where the imagination found itself blocked and thwarted. Whatever therapeutic value such a book has for its author, the literary problem remains.It became obvious that Roth had no power of what critics once called invention; he was unable to inspirit a plot or characters that were the least bit outside his own experience.In his new book “My Life as a Man,” which deals with the operatically unhappy marriage of a successful young writer, Roth returns to the quasi‐autobiographical mode of “Portnoy” and “Goodbye, Columbus,” and the result is good enough to confirm the misdirection of the last three books, just as “Portnoy” revealed what was misting from the three that preceded it.This would be a dubious distinction had Roth's book not also boldly altered the tone of our confessional writing, most of which had been lugubrious and realistic, smothered in angst and high‐seriousness.Reaching back instead to the raunchy, delirious autobiographical manner of Henry Miller and Céline—indeed, perpetrating an unseemly imitation of the Tatter's great “Death on the Installment Plan”—Roth pitched his anguish in such a low comic strain that the effect was irresistible.Spielvogel, who delivered the punch line of “Portnoy”—“Now vee may perhaps to begin”—keeps his word and returns under his own name to treat Peter to five years of analysis.He considers Peter “among the nation's top young narcissists in the arts,” and causes him anguish by writing him up in a psychiatric journal—another tormentor, like the wife, like the tyrannical alimony judge who is described as “the Stalin of Divorce Court Communism: From each according to his ability, to each according to her need.” “My Life as a Man” can be a very funny book, despite the subdued tone and the general misery.The result of this conversion was three thoroughly dismal and mostly unfunny books, “Our Gang” (an inept, mean‐spirited satire on Nixon), “The Breast” (a grotesque fantasy of sexual metamorphosis and infantile regression) and “The Great American Novel” (an aimless, hyped‐up catalogue of big‐league baseball fantasies).This last book did contain a few marvelous scenes of Paul Bunyanesque Americana, tall tales woven out of the circus side of baseball history, but after a hundred pages Roth lost all notion of what to do next and simply gassed on repetitiously, hoping to be saved by sheer bad taste.Evidently he came to feel that his three earlier books, starting with “Goodbye, Columbus” in 1959, were enfeebled by an overdose of Jamesian or Hebraic moral seriousness, which had censored a native but “sub‐literary” gift for farce, mimicry and Lenny Brucean black humor.Henceforth he would take his material from low rather than high culture, from sick jokes and borscht‐circuit vulgarity, from half‐repressed sexual fantasies and the half‐remembered pop culture of the thirties and forties, from the carney‐barker rather than the genteel, owl‐eyed Jamesian narretor.