He showed us a world of realities disguised as fiction.
Philip Roth, the prolific, protean, and often blackly comic novelist who was a pre-eminent figure in 20th century literature, died on Tuesday night at a hospital in Manhattan. He was 85.
The cause was congestive heart failure, said the writer Judith Thurman, a close friend. Mr. Roth had homes in Manhattan and Connecticut.
In the course of a very long career, Mr. Roth took on many guises — mainly versions of himself — in the exploration of what it means to be an American, a Jew, a writer, a man. He was a champion of Eastern European novelists like Ivan Klima and Bruno Schulz, and also a passionate student of American history and the American vernacular. And more than just about any other writer of his time he was tireless in his exploration of male sexuality. His creations include Alexander Portnoy, a teenager so libidinous he has sex with both his baseball mitt and the family dinner, and David Kepesh, a professor who turns into an exquisitely sensitive 155-pound female breast.
Mr. Roth was the last of the great white males: the triumvirate of writers — Saul Bellow and John Updike were the others — who towered over American letters in the second half of the 20th century. Outliving both and borne aloft by an extraordinary second wind, Mr. Roth wrote more novels than either of them. In 2005 he became only the third living writer (after Bellow and Eudora Welty) to have his books enshrined in the Library of America.
“Updike and Bellow hold their flashlights out into the world, reveal the world as it is now,” Mr. Roth once said. “I dig a hole and shine my flashlight into the hole.”
The Nobel Prize eluded Mr. Roth, but he won most of the other top honors: two National Book Awards, two National Book Critics Circle awards, three PEN/Faulkner Awards, a Pulitzer Prize and the Man Booker International Prize.
In his 60s, an age when many writers are winding down, he produced an exceptional sequence of historical novels — “American Pastoral,” “The Human Stain” and “I Married a Communist” — a product of his personal re-engagement with America and American themes. And starting with “Everyman” in 2006, when he was 73, he kept up a relentless book-a-year pace, publishing works that while not necessarily major were nevertheless fiercely intelligent and sharply observed. Their theme in one way or another was the ravages of age and mortality itself, and in publishing them Mr. Roth seemed to be defiantly staving off his own decline.
I just read “The Plot Against America,” published in 2004, that is eerily prescient in its alternative history of fascism coming to America with the election of Charles A. Lindbergh as president in 1940, defeating FDR in his bid for a third term. It was written as a warning in the George W. Bush era, but strikes an even more jarring chord in the #MAGA era.
The first Roth novel that I read was “Portnoy’s Complaint.” I will never look at liver the same way again.