Essay Uncategorized


At the end of the last long conversation I had with Philip Roth, we wound up talking about John Updike. This wasn’t unusual. It also happened sometimes that Updike and I would find ourselves talking about Roth. John once surprised me by asking, out of the blue, “Have you ever been to Philip’s house? What’s it like?” Roth was equally curious about how Updike lived, and, knowing that I occasionally played golf with John, he once said, “So what’s his game like? Is he any good? Do you beat him?” They weren’t enemies, but neither were they friends, exactly. They were rivals who also happened to be mutual admirers—two of America’s greatest living writers, peering over each other’s shoulders.

I can’t be alone in feeling their loss acutely. The landscape seems empty and diminished now: no more giants. I sometimes have trouble thinking about one without thinking of the other, and so that’s what I propose to do now—to think about Philip Roth while also thinking about John Updike.

Updike and Roth were practically the same age—John was older by exactly a year and a day—and they announced them­selves at practically the same moment: 1959, when the 26-year-old Roth published Goodbye, Columbus, arguably the flashier debut, and a National Book Award winner besides. Yet Updike, then 27, matched him with not just a novel, The Poorhouse Fair, but a collection of stories, The Same Door. A decade later each had his biggest popular success with a novel that in its sexual explicitness and deliberate provocations went way beyond anything previous in American fiction and announced what would prove to be, on each writer’s part, a career-long preoccupation with the theme of male desire. I mean Couples, of course, which came out in the spring of 1968, and Portnoy’s Complaint, published in early 1969. Overnight, Roth and Updike became the two dirtiest book writers in America, or the two dirtiest with serious literary credentials. Then, in mid-career, each of them wrote a four-volume masterwork about a single character—Zuckerman in Roth’s case, Rabbit, in Updike’s. (Roth, by the way, liked to joke about a Jewish version of the Rabbit books: Rabbi, Run, Rabbi Is Rich, Rabbi at Rest.) In the late ’80s, just months apart, each of them published an autobiography of sorts—Updike’s Self-Consciousness and Roth’s The Facts—and in both cases the books hid at least as much as they revealed.

The two men weren’t in lockstep, and they weren’t imitating each other, certainly, but each was reading the other—with interest, admiration, maybe a tinge of envy—and surely they were both aware that each of them was assembling a major body of work and that (with the possible exception of Saul Bellow and Toni Morrison) no one else in America was writing at the same level. There’s a telling, and very funny, moment in Zuckerman Unbound when Zuckerman, opening his mail, finds a sexy photograph of a young woman in black lingerie reading an Updike novel. After studying it for the better part of a morning, he forwards it to Massachusetts, with a note asking Updike to reroute any similar photos mistakenly sent by Zuckerman fans.

The two writers were in a class all their own. For readers it was like being present at a literary steeplechase: Updike shot out in front with the first two Rabbit books; then, with The Ghost Writer, Roth caught up and even edged ahead a bit, before stumbling a little in mid-career while Updike, with the second two Rabbit books, took a big lead, practically lapping Roth. Then, just when Roth seemed to be out of gas, he got a second wind—probably the greatest late-career burst in all of American literature—with Sabbath’s Theater and the American Trilogy, and now Updike was struggling to catch up. Into their seventies, long after most writers have called it quits, each of them was still at it, gamely publishing a novel every year or so. Could they possibly keep it going, all of us who read them wondered, and the answer, amaz­ingly, was yes.

Were the two of them aware of this horse race? I’m sure they were, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that they secretly compared sales figures, too. “Oh, Philip, he’s so competitive,” Updike said to me once. Roth, for his part, sometimes complained about how prolific Updike was, and about the latter’s habit of collecting even his most minor work in those big omnibus volumes he published every few years. “Honestly,” he said, “do we have to read every fucking word the guy writes?”

They had their disagreements. There’s a revealing moment in Updike’s Self-Consciousness when he describes an argument over the Vietnam War. This was on Martha’s Vineyard in the summer of 1968—or right before the publication of Couples and Portnoy, when both of them, or so you would think, were feeling flush with promise and success. Updike, for reasons he goes into at length in Self-Consciousness, was uncomfortable with a lot of the antiwar protests taking place then, and he said so that afternoon. He doesn’t mention who else was there besides himself, Roth, and their host, the longtime New Yorker writer Bernard Taper, but we can guess that it was the Vineyard regulars: the Styrons, Jules Feiffer, Robert Brustein, maybe even Lillian Hellman. Updike was the only one defending the war, in other words, and he felt ganged-up on. He writes: “At one point Roth, in the calm and courteous tone of one who had been through many psychiatric sessions, pointed out to me that I was the most aggressive person in the room. It gave me pause. On reflection, it seemed possibly true. Why was I so vehement and agitated? . . . I did not have just a few cool reservations about the antiwar movement; I felt hot. I was emotionally involved. ‘Defending Vietnam’—the vernacular opposite of being ‘antiwar’—I was defending myself.” The little aside about Roth’s being a veteran of the psychiatric couch seems like a dig—maybe inspired by a reading of Portnoy in advance galleys?—but the interesting point here is Updike’s need to make the argument personal. He felt like an outsider, he says elsewhere in that book, and though he eventually changed his position on the war, he stubbornly remained an outsider of sorts. Unlike Roth, he had very few writer friends, and when his day’s work was done, he sought refuge not at literary parties or dinners, but on the golf course.

In 1993, it was Roth’s turn to be annoyed when Updike reviewed Operation Shylock for The New Yorker, criticizing what he called Roth’s “narrowing, magnifying fascination with himself.” The review was not nearly as negative as some and was not devoid of praise, as was almost always true of Updike’s reviews. But Roth was miffed that it happened at all: he didn’t think two masters should be in the business of criticizing each other. Compounding the offense, in 1999 Updike published a piece about literary biography in the New York Review of Books—not one of his stronger efforts, it should be said. In it he complains about what he calls “Judas biographies,” books in which a writer deliberately sets out to paint an unflattering portrait of an author, and as examples he singles out three books that aren’t biographies at all but memoirs: Joyce Maynard’s book about her life with J. D. Salinger; Paul Theroux’s recollection of his broken friendship with V. S. Naipaul; and Claire Bloom’s account of her marriage to Roth. About the latter, he wrote: “Claire Bloom, as the wronged ex-wife of Philip Roth, shows him to have been, as their marriage rapidly unraveled, neurasthenic to the point of hospitalization, adulterous, callously selfish, and financially vindictive.”

Roth, who for the most part bore Bloom’s attack with stoic silence, wrote a letter to the Review in which he proposed a small but crucial revision: “Claire Bloom, presenting herself as the wronged ex-wife of Philip Roth, alleges him to have been neurasthenic to the point of hospitalization, adulterous, callously selfish, and financially vindictive.” Written that way, he says, the sentence would have “the neutral tone that Updike is careful to maintain elsewhere in the essay.”

Updike responded with a not very apologetic, one-sentence reply: “Mr. Roth’s imagined revisions sound fine to me, but my own wording conveys, I think, the same sense of one-sided allegations.” When the essay was collected in book form, a few years later, Updike stuck with his original wording. It all seems a little petty now, but the upshot was that the two men never spoke again. I think Roth eventually regretted this. This is what he wrote after Updike’s death: “John Updike is our time’s greatest man of letters, as brilliant a literary critic and essayist as he was a novelist and short story writer. He is and always will be no less a national treasure than his nineteenth-century precursor, Nathaniel Hawthorne.” Roth also attended Updike’s memorial at The New York Public Library and spoke very warmly about him at the reception afterwards. He said to me, “I dream about John sometimes. He’s standing behind me, watching me write.”

Updike, for his part, remained fascinated by, even a little in awe of, Roth’s energy and productivity. In an interview he gave to the British paper the Telegraph in the fall of 2008, he said of Roth, “He’s scarily devoted to the novelist’s craft. . . . . He’s certainly written more novels than I have and seems more dedicated in a way to the act of writing as a means of really reshaping the world to your liking. But he’s been very good to have around as far as goading me to become a better writer.” And in November 2008, just two months before he died, he said much the same thing to me in a TimesTalk interview: “Philip’s example makes me get up earlier and work harder.”

In the end, I think they were mostly grateful for each other, the way that, say, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer—to use a golf analogy that Updike would have appreciated—were grateful for each other. They raised the other’s game. Roth would have preferred a baseball comparison, so let’s also say they were like Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio, which is maybe even closer to the mark: both of those players were meticulous, even a little obsessive about their craft, more nearly equals than Jack and Arnie, and each set a record that will probably never be equaled. The example of one made the other try harder.[1]

In that last conversation, Roth also said to me, “John had more talent, but I think maybe I got more out of the talent I had.” I think that’s just about right, if we’re speaking novelistically, and set aside for a moment Updike’s achievements as a poet, short story writer, literary and art critic, and all-around man of letters. What Roth didn’t say but could have was that while Updike’s best sentences may have been better than Roth’s, he also wrote many more bad ones. (It wasn’t for nothing that Updike won Britain’s lifetime achievement award for bad sex writing.)

I even think Updike might have agreed with Roth’s assessment of their respective careers. Each of them had an exact sense of his strengths and weaknesses and of his place in the literary pantheon. Neither was vain, but neither was humble, either. They knew where they stood, and they both had an eye on posterity. You can see this in Roth’s immense care and reputation-management in selecting and aiding a biographer, Blake Bailey, and in his taking such pains to straighten out the factual record about his marriage to Bloom and the real model for the character Coleman Silk in The Human Stain. Updike adamantly didn’t want a biography, though he got one anyway, as he should have foreseen. He thought his work should speak for itself, but he, too, took great care of his legacy. In the Houghton Library at Harvard, all his manuscripts are neatly boxed and ordered—maybe the last of the great literary archives—and in the box containing Rabbit at Rest, for example—just in case some future scholar wonders about that candy Rabbit was so fond of—there’s a little plastic bag with a folded-up wrapper from a Planter’s Peanut Bar.

In other ways, Updike and Roth couldn’t have been more unlike. To take the most obvious difference, one was a Jew and the other not just a Protestant, but an observant, churchgoing one. Roth was funnier—much funnier. Updike was more charm­ing, but there was about his charm a kind of evasiveness, a mask. You felt that the real Updike was sometimes hovering behind it, just out of sight. Roth, too, could be charming—when he wanted to—but there was no evasiveness. Although he wrote so often about disguises and alter egos, Roth in person had none—unless he was telling a rabbi joke in a perfect Yiddish accent. The real Philip was always there, vivid and unmediated, and you always knew what was on his mind.

For Updike, writing was almost as easy as breathing, and the sentences poured forth with scarcely a second thought. He loved the editorial process, the queries, the copy-editing, the correcting of proofs, making last-minute changes over the phone. But he was a tweaker, a tinkerer, not a rewriter. His first drafts were, as often as not, his final drafts, and to judge from all the ephemeral stuff he crammed into those big roundup collections, he hardly ever threw away a word. Roth, on the other hand, was a slogger, a tireless reviser, who once said he crumpled five pages for every one he saved. He had lots of false starts and changes of direction. Writing for him was work, hard labor that, as he stood for hours at his desk, took an almost physical toll.

And then there’s the prose itself: no one would ever confuse an Updike sentence with a Roth one. Updike’s were finely wrought, shimmering with verbal brilliance. Here’s the beginning of the short story “In Football Season”: “Do you remember a fragrance girls acquire in autumn? As you walk beside them after school, they tighten their arms about their books and bend forward to give a more flattering attention to your words, and in the little intimate area thus formed, carved into the clear air by an implicit crescent, there is a complex fragrance woven of tobacco, powder, lipstick, rinsed hair, and that perhaps imaginary and certainly elusive scent that wool, whether in the lapels of a jacket or the nap of a sweater, seems to yield when the cloudless fall sky like the blue bell of a vacuum lifts toward itself the glad exhalations of all things.” Roth’s sentences were vigorous and propulsive, urgently marching across the page, and of the two of them, he had the better ear; his writing is alive with voices, his own and those of his many inventions. Here’s a paragraph from The Human Stain. Nathan Zuckerman is speaking, talking about the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal, but only Roth could have written this. It seems just to pour forth, an angry rant, spontaneous, off the cuff, but listen to how precisely the syntax meshes, like a gearbox, even as the voice revs higher and higher:

It was the summer in America when the nausea returned, when the joking didn’t stop, when the speculation and the theorizing and the hyperbole didn’t stop, when the moral obligation to explain to one’s children about adult life was abrogated in favor of maintaining in them every illusion about adult life, when the smallness of people was simply crushing, when some kind of demon had been unleashed in the nation and, on both sides, people wondered “Why are we so crazy?,” when men and women alike, upon awakening in the morning, discovered that during the night, in a state of sleep that transported them beyond envy or loathing, they had dreamed of the brazenness of Bill Clinton. I myself dreamed of a mammoth banner, draped dadaistically like a Christo wrapping from one end of the White House to another and bearing the legend A HUMAN BEING LIVES HERE. It was the summer when—for the billionth time—the jumble, the mayhem, the mess proved itself more subtle than this one’s ideology and that one’s morality. It was the summer when a presi­dent’s penis was on everyone’s mind, and life, in all its shameless impurity, once again confounded America.

And yet, for all the dissimilarities, the two writers had a great deal in common, more than first meets the eye. They both loved the post office, for example, and they frequently used it to send generous and encouraging fan letters (or postcards, in Updike’s case) to younger writers. Each of them had two wives and numerous girlfriends. But to begin with, they were both products of the Depression, something that goes a long way toward explaining their steady work habits, their unflashy lifestyles, their wariness of easy success. Both lived through the Second World War, though too young to serve, and shared the optimism and moral clarity of that era—a belief in American goodness, Ameri­can progress, and American exceptionalism. That’s what made it so hard for Updike to oppose the Vietnam War, and why Roth always insisted that he was an American first and a Jew second. Both became wealthy men, but unlike Saul Bellow, say—with his Borsalinos and Sulka shirts—they didn’t flaunt it. They drove Volvos and dressed like college professors.

Then there’s the small-town upbringing. Hold on, you’re going to say, didn’t Roth grow up in Newark, then an even bigger and more thriving city than it is today? Technically, yes. But it seems to me that in many ways Roth’s Weequahic neighborhood was not all that different from Updike’s Shillington, Pennsylvania —a small, nearly self-enclosed world, with its own mores, its own rituals, its own specific ethnicity (Jewish in the one instance, Pennsylvania Dutch in the other), a place where everyone knew everyone else, and everyone else’s business besides. A couple of times Roth reminisced to me at some length about his old neighborhood, and I wish I had written down what he said. But here’s how he describes it in The Plot Against America:

Looking west from our bedroom’s rear window we could sometimes see inland as far as the dark treeline of the Watchungs, a low-lying mountain range fringed by great estates and affluent, sparsely populated suburbs, the extreme edge of the known world—and about eight miles from our house. A block to the south was the working-class town of Hillside, whose population was predominantly Gentile. The boundary with Hillside marked the beginning of Union County, another New Jersey entirely. . . . All [of us] were Jews. The neighborhood men either were in business for themselves—the owners of the local candy store, grocery store, jewelry store, dress shop, furniture shop, service station, and delicatessen, or the proprietors of tiny industrial job shops over by the Newark-Irvington line, or self-employed plumbers, electricians, housepainters, and boilermen—or were foot-soldier salesmen like my father, out every day in the city streets and in people’s houses peddling their wares on commission. The Jewish doctors and lawyers and the successful merchants who owned big stores downtown lived in one-family houses on streets branching off the eastern slope of the Chancellor Avenue hill, closer to grassy, wooded Weequahic Park, a landscaped three hundred acres whose boating lake, golf course, and harness-racing track separated the Weequahic section from the industrial plants and shipping terminals lining Route 27 and the Pennsylvania Railroad viaduct east of that and the burgeoning airport east of that and the very edge of America east of that.

Both Roth and Updike were adored, doted-upon children, treasured by their admiring mothers—princelings in their own households. Updike once told me that he felt luckier than Roth because he didn’t have to share his parents’ attention with a sibling; he liked being an only child, he said, because it meant all that warmth and admiration was directed at him alone. But it seems to me that Roth’s brother, Sandy, five years older, was less a rival than a mentor, the way big brothers sometimes are, a role model, and a buffer. He, too, adored young Philip.

So both boys grew up a little spoiled, perhaps—they were taught to believe they were special. But they were also both decent, hard-working, good students, popular with boys and girls alike. In their respective small towns, they were liked and admired and felt the security of knowing they utterly belonged. They loved the pop culture of their era—the movies, the songs, the Sunday comics. They both loved baseball. They were also great readers, Roth possibly the more ambitious. The young Updike, we know, liked Thurber and Benchley and Agatha Christie. In an essay in Why Write?, his final Library of America collection, Roth says his teenage reading included Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis, and Thomas Wolfe. They both had brilliant college careers. At Bucknell, Roth edited the campus literary magazine, Et Cetera, where he displayed a gift for parody—he was like a Jewish Jonathan Swift, he boasted: Swiftberg. Updike became president of the Harvard Lampoon, to which he contributed both humor pieces and cartoons. And after graduation, Roth and Updike even overlapped at The New Yorker—or, rather, they almost did. Roth told me once that he applied for and was offered a job in the magazine’s fact-checking department but turned it down and went to graduate school instead. Probably just as well. Updike was already ensconced at the magazine—a prodigy, turning out fiction, light verse, and stories for the Talk of the Town—and the picture of a probably envious and resentful young Roth combing through Updike’s proofs, looking for errors, is too disquieting to linger on.

Each of them brought an almost monkish devotion to his calling. Unlike Roth, Updike had a family—a wife and four children and then a second wife and three stepsons—but he was the first to admit that he loved his work more. At his memorial, his daughter Liz remembered him as a kind, attentive father, but added that she always felt she was sharing him with someone else, someone more important—his oeuvre, a stack of books as tall as she was.

Roth, it seems, made a deliberate decision not to have a family precisely so he wouldn’t have to divide his attention—so that he could put in those solitary hours, stints so lonely and extended that, as he joked to me once, he sometimes found himself talking to the woodchucks on his way back from his studio. “I live alone, there’s no one else to be responsible for or to, or to spend time with,” Roth told David Remnick. “I don’t have to sit there and be entertaining or amusing. I read till all hours if I want to. If I get up at five and I can’t sleep and I want to work, I go out and I go to work. So I work, I’m on call. I’m like a doctor and it’s an emergency room. And I’m the emergency.” This all-or-nothing decision—to devote himself exclusively to his art—probably cost Roth more than most of us knew. Among the most touching moments at his memorial were several recollections about how much he loved children and how well he got on with them. This is something we never would have guessed from the books. We know all about filial love from Roth, especially the love a son feels for his father, but that he also understood the love an adult feels for a child was a secret he kept from all but a handful of those closest to him.

To say that, above all, Philip Roth and John Updike were American writers may seem obvious, a truism. But they were American writers of a very particular sort—it’s what they most had in common. They both practiced a very American kind of realism—sharing an almost religious faith in the importance of facts and details for their own sake. Both writers had a passion for exactitude, for getting things right. You can see this pursuit of exactness, for example, in Roth’s meticulous description of glovemaking near the beginning of American Pastoral or, in Rabbit Is Rich, in Updike’s exact reconstruction of how an automobile dealership works. “Giving the mundane its beautiful due” is how Updike described this part of the writer’s job. In a speech he gave at his 80th birthday, Roth put it this way:

. . . this passion for specificity, for the hypnotic materiality of the world one is in, is all but at the heart of the task to which every American novelist has been enjoined since Herman Melville and his whale and Mark Twain and his river: to discover the most arresting, evocative verbal description for every last American thing. Without strong representation of the thing—animate or inanimate—without the crucial representation of what is real, there is nothing. Its concreteness, its unabashed focus on all the mundanities, a fervor for the singular and a profound aversion to generalities is fiction’s lifeblood. It is from a scrupulous fidelity to the blizzard of specific data that is a personal life, it is from the force of its uncompromising particularity, from its physicalness, that the realistic novel, the insatiable realistic novel, with its multitude of realities, derives its ruthless intimacy. And its mission: to portray humanity in its particularity.

What’s fascinating about this declaration of faith in realism, in details and particulars, is that mid-career Roth—the Roth of The Counterlife, The Facts, Operation Shylock, Deception—might not have subscribed to it. The great subject of mid-career Roth is the writerly vocation itself, and the books are full of disguises and alter egos and differing versions of the self—even “alternative facts,” to borrow from that eminent literary critic Kellyanne Conway. They’re about the fictiveness of fiction, its made-upness, the ways it can deceive us.

This is not to say that Roth was flirting with postmodernism, or certainly not the high French version, which says that language is biased and unstable, and there is no truth whatever. What makes The Counterlife his masterpiece in this vein is that the various counter versions in that book are evoked with such a wealth of minutely observed detail—hyper-realism almost. The counter-lives vie with each other for believability and defy the reader to doubt them.

After Deception, which does strike me as a gimmicky book, whose real subject is just its own fabrication, Roth, as we know, underwent a kind of sea change and, borne aloft by that extraordinary second wind, produced some of his very best work, including Sabbath’s Theater and the American Trilogy: American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, The Human Stain. There are a lot of explanations for this. His move back to America. His successful weathering of the crisis occasioned by the painful breakup of his marriage to Claire Bloom. His discovery, in the character of the priapic Mickey Sabbath, who has both an id and a voice absolutely without a brake—he’ll say and think anything—some of the same freedom he found with Portnoy. To this list I would add his embrace—or maybe re-embrace—of that passion for specificity, for the hypnotic materiality of the world. This was a faith that Updike, devout Protestant that he was, never deviated from. But in Sabbath’s Theater you can feel Roth re-awakening to it. The usual thing to say about that novel is that it’s a triumph of voice, and it is, but it’s also a book in which Mickey himself awakens to the power of a place—the Jersey Shore—remembered in great detail. There’s a crucial moment in the book that consists simply of a two-page list of everything Mickey finds when he unpacks a carton containing stuff belonging to his late brother, shot down over the Philippines in World War II: his track letter, some photographs, a money belt, his toilet case, including a bar of Ivory soap, unopened, a black Majestic Dry Shaver in a small red box. “With cord,” Mickey says. “Hairs in the head of it. The microscopic hairs of my brother’s beard.” This is more than ordinary description. Behind it is the passion of an encyclopedist, an urge to get everything down, every last riveting detail, because every detail matters.

In that 80th birthday speech, Roth ended by reading a lengthy excerpt from the end of Sabbath’s Theater, pages, he said, that he liked as well as any pages he had ever written. In the excerpt Mickey is in a cemetery on the Jersey Shore, searching for the graves of his parents, his grandparents, and the beloved brother. He reminisces at length about growing up in the old neighborhood and ends by addressing his grandmother herself. Talking about his brother, he says to her: “Every day of his life he returned home. Endlessness renewed every day. And the next morning he goes off to die. But then, death is endlessness par excellence, is it not? Wouldn’t you agree? Well, for whatever it is worth, before I move on: I have never once eaten corn on the cob without pleasurably recalling the devouring frenzy of you and your dentures and the repugnance this ignited in my mother. It taught me more than mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law. It taught me everything.” Here is a whole world summed up in an ear of corn, in writing so vivid and particular that just the phrase “devouring frenzy” for a moment, anyway, almost brings the dead back to life.

In the short stories Updike wrote starting in the middle of his career, he returned again and again to a single place: the sandstone farmhouse in Shillington, Pennsylvania, where he spent his teenage years and, later, where his widowed mother lived out the end of her life. I was at The New Yorker when Updike began writing these, and though I was a huge fan—an idolater, it’s not too much to say—I remember thinking, Oh, no, not again! And yet, miraculously, on each visit he managed to discover something new, and readers came to know that house—this was the real magic—even better than their own childhood homes. Updike conjured up “the coal bin in the cellar, the shelves of home­made preserves, the walnut icebox, the black stone sink, the warping kitchen linoleum in the pattern of little interlocking bricks, the stained-glass dining-room chandelier, the front-hall newel post with ribs around it like the rings of Saturn.”

On a larger, more novelistic scale, it seems to me, Roth did much the same thing with his Weequahic neighborhood. He kept coming back to it not just as a setting for his plots but as a place of deep significance—it’s America writ small—and he brings it to life not with platitudes or generalities but specifics. He doesn’t just evoke it, he delineates all the landmarks: Weequahic Park, the Chancellor Avenue playground, Meisner’s Cleaners, Syd’s hot dog stand, Abelson’s jewelry store, Zabachnik’s deli. In American Pastoral, in the speech that he writes but doesn’t ultimately give at his 45th high school reunion, Zuckerman says, thinking back to the old neighborhood, “Has anywhere since so engrossed you in its ocean of details? The detail, the immensity of the detail, the force of the detail, the weight of the detail—the rich endlessness of detail surrounding you in your young life like the six feet of dirt that’ll be packed on your grave when you’re dead.”

That ultimate detail, death, haunts late Roth much more than it does Updike, who seems melancholy at the thought but not, like Roth, both horrified and unable to look away. Think of how many cemetery scenes there are in Roth, and especially of the great one toward the end of Everyman when the gravedigger explains his trade: “I dig front to back, and I dig a grid, and as I go I use my edger to square the hole. I use that and a straight fork—they call it a spading fork. I use that to edge too, to bang down, cut the edges, and keep it square. You’ve got to keep it square as you go.” Not a bad description, if you think about it, of how Roth fashions his sentences. The cheerier analogy Updike frequently employed was carpentry. This description of a fellow-artist is from a nonfiction piece describing some work he and his first wife had done in their very old house: “The carpenter turned his back on our tilting walls and took his vertical from a plumb line and his horizontal from a bubble level, and then went to work by the light of these absolutes. Fitting his planks into place took a lot of those long, irregular, oblique cuts with a ripsaw that break an amateur’s heart. The bookcase and kitchen counter and cabinet he left behind stand perfectly up-and-down in a cockeyed house. Their rectitude is chastening.”

A straight-edged, four-square, chastening rectitude—that’s the essence of what I want to call American realism. You see it, luminously, in ninteenth-century American painting, in the work of Thomas Eakins and Winslow Homer, and you see it in the writing of these two great painters with words. No shortcuts, no fudging—just the world in its beautiful mundaneness and its terrifying impermanence.
[1] Just in case there are any baseball experts here, I should add that I’m aware this analogy is not perfect. DiMaggio always hit better in Fenway Park, and Williams was more at home in Yankee Stadium, so for the comparison to really work, Roth should have written about WASPs and Updike about Jews.