Thursday, October 28, 2010

Philip Roth's "On the Air"

In the current Esquire's profile of Philip Roth the author revisits his old turf in Newark. It's an interesting read because the usually thorny Roth is uncharacteristically, almost bizarrely, benevolent. It's not a stretch to say the reporter, Scott Raab, was probably relieved by Roth's good mood. He'd even come to the interview armed with a gift to soften up the old writer—a rare copy of New American Review #10 (1970), the home of Roth's notorious, and never-collected, "On the Air." Roth's happy to get the little quarterly, but he admits to Raab, "I hate that story." Raab confesses he isn't so crazy about it himself—in fact, he says, it's probably the worst thing Roth's ever written.

While "On the Air" doesn't have quite the mystique of, say, Salinger's also-uncollected "Hapworth 16, 1924," it is nearly impossible to find and, moreover, was published in what was a vintage time for Roth, so it does have a certain luster. When asked why he had never included it in any of his books, Roth said it was "too gross"—an impressive distinction coming from a writer who felt the scene in which Alex Portnoy sexually violates a piece of meat meant for the family dinner isn't. Roth went on to explain that the story was an extension of the id-informed, ferociously uncompromising comedy he had created in Portnoy—only that in the later story, rather than blossoming further, the style had grown a little rancid.

Back in the '80s, I found a copy of New American Review #10 in a used bookstore in Austin, and I can confirm that "On the Air" is not very good. To a certain extent this doesn't matter. The story is rare, its author is canonical, the thing demands attention. (The same is true of the elusive Salinger story, which might, by the way, be his worst.)

I hate reviewers who feel they have to synopsize every plot, but in the case of this unobtainable story—the reading of which almost amounts to a "sighting"—I guess I have no choice. So all right, then: Shoe salesman, and part-time manager of "mostly colored" showbiz acts, Milton Lippman fires off several letters to Albert Einstein pitching a quiz show idea in which contestants would try to stump the great genius. Certainly Einstein could do a better job than that goy on the radio, that "schmuck from Fort Wayne," the Answer Man. Lippman gets no response, so he throws his wife and son in the car and drives up to Princeton. "How can you annoy him, one letter after another," his wife asks him, "and then because he doesn't so much as give a single reply—drop in! On Einstein!"

The Lippmans never make it to Princeton. They pull over for ice cream, and inside this tavern, this saloon, the family is confronted with the goyim of their worst dreams: it's all whiskey and sawdust, the heads of dead animals hanging on the walls, Kate Smith singing "When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain." The soda jerk, who has an ice-cream-scoop prosthetic hand, asks which kind of cone the Lippmans' son would like, and one of the choices is wool. A woolen ice cream cone. These are rugged people!

I find most of this funny enough; and honestly, the story's opening pages, which at turns resemble both Portnoy and the Nixon satires that Roth collected in Our Gang, aren't bad. Roth satirizes the way Jews fear Christians, the way Christians fear Jews, and, if not necessarily great art, the piece is vigorous and pretty smart. After awhile, though, this highly stylized story goes from broadness to all-out phantasmagoria, as surreal and menacing as Bloom's trip to Nighttown, and Roth loses his grip on it. The problem is not simply that the story is "gross" (at one point Jew and Gentile strip down and weigh their testicles on a kitchen scale, while the finale offers that old standby, a bleeding rectum, and the threat of coprophagy). And it's not just that the rampant postmodern streak takes over (e.g., the story is "interrupted" by a news bulletins and contest announcements—tropes that not only date the story but which aren't funny to begin with). The problem is that the story becomes incoherent and, for all its manic action, quite dull. Roth was in a fury of emancipation in those days, ready to take down every ruler and servant in his path—and more power to him, I say—but "On the Air" is just too raw, as unprocessed as a dream.

I find myself kind of reluctant to leave good old New American Review #10, which I've been carrying around with me all week. There are poems about Kennedy and Sinatra, another about soup. There's a report on a visit paid by Jorge Luis Borges (still alive in 1970) to Columbia University. There's a story by Russell Banks, who was still a nobody at the time. Everything is still very New York-centric. And earnest: this issue includes a "symposium," in which people like Allen Ginsberg, Wilfrid Sheed, Robert Creeley are asked all kinds of serious questions (why do you write? should politics should be kept apart from art? have we entered a "post-modern era"?), and an open letter from editor Ted Solotaroff pleading for subscribers (one year: five bucks). Nearly everyone in the magazine is Jewish or lives in New York, or both; and nearly everyone is dead now. 1970 was a long, long time ago.


  1. I also get annoyed when reviewers post summaries!

    Why's a dinosaur your Twitter picture?

  2. The dinosaur was part of a Hot Wheels set my son had. I always kind of liked that picture.

  3. Thanks for "that old standby." Mine to carry around the rest of the day...

    And nice ending. In the immortal words of Randy Newman (Old Man), "Everybody dies..."

  4. Actually, it's not true that it was never collected. You can find a reprint in American Jewish Fiction, ed. Gerald Shapiro, U Nebraska Press, 1998.

    1. Thanks for pointing this out. Surprising that Roth gave his permission.