My introduction to the incomparable world of Philip Roth came as a primal nineteen year old at the University of Maryland in the fall of 2002. A junior, I along with the entire region had endured a month-long siege due to the Beltway Sniper. To boot, we were hearing loud whispers out of Washington that Bush wanted to invade Iraq. Times were tense. I refer to this period as primal for a few reasons. The first in reference to my incipience in life, at the cusp of infinite learning and knowledge. The second being that I matched a long unkempt hairstyle with a permanent bowler hat, an explicit homage to my favourite director and my favourite film at the time A Clockwork Orange, and to cap it off, I did not own any clothes that fit me.
My roommate and childhood friend Scott burst home one day in an electrified state, "Have you read Portnoy's Complaint?" Scott had signed up for a Jewish Literature course which I inexplicably hadn't known existed. With excited haste, I heard such phrases as "fucking awesome" and "by Philip Roth" that, as an English major taking almost exclusively literature courses, and, as a Jew who beyond foolishly had convinced myself that I knew all the great Jewish writers, I began to feel a great resentment and embarrassment over such a blatant blind spot.
With life's progression came my gradual embracement of the master's oeuvre. At first I gravitated towards his shorter novels and novellas, telling myself that Roth packed a more powerful punch in concentrated doses. The Breast, The Dying Animal, and The Ghost Writer, were an intense glimpse into the life of a renowned and virile public intellectual. But the deeper truth is that his longer novels are such monumentally challenging and intellectually ambitious works that I didn't have the reserve of mental fortitude to tackle them head on. Only in recent years—with a certain world weariness and wisdom that I suspect only age can provide—have I unearthed the treasures of magnum opuses such as Sabbath's Theater and American Pastoral.
What Philip Roth unleashed upon the world with shocking efficacy and humour is through passionate intellectualization of perversion between consenting adults, he showed us that it can be a glorious part of the human experience. My literary friends came up with a nickname for him: The Beast. His writing is that uncompromisingly urgent. For Roth, sexuality is not just a part of our lives, it is fundamental, both a generator and extension of our joys, fears, anxieties, and triumphs.
Years ago, a close friend unironically remarked, "You're like a walking Philip Roth novel." I took it as a great compliment even though I'm fairly certain Ilya didn't necessarily mean it as one. In a 1974 essay for the New York Review of Books, Roth wrote, "Going wild in public is the last thing a Jew is expected to do." Even today, after all these years, Philip Roth still striking me like a thunderbolt: I only now finally understand all my mother's admonishments.