"I think if 'Portnoy's Complaint' were written today, it would be taken as
a humorous novelty," Joseph Heller said. "Today even women write books in
which they happily masturbate."
I particularly liked that "even."
I was talking to the 74-year-old Heller because three works of fiction
by his grizzled Jewish peers have recently come out: Saul Bellow's "The
Actual," Norman Mailer's "The Gospel According to the Son," and Philip Roth's
"American Pastoral." I doubt this literary equivalent of harmonic convergence has ever
happened before, and though it's obviously mere coincidence, the
simultaneous appearance of the Father, the Son and the Ghost Writer
seemed to me to suggest a cultural watershed of sorts, or at least a
chance to take stock as the twilight of the machers draws near.
These were the novelists who took over American culture at precisely the
moment when American culture was taking over the world. Bellow wrestled
American writing from the grip of Hemingway; Mailer, through his protean,
highly uneven talent, moved the American intellectual from bookworm past
activist to showman; and Roth invested American fiction with a depth many
thought beyond our national capacity. They were an aggressive clan --
offensive to women, to the squeamish and, most of all, by their very
prominence, to the WASP establishment. And as part of the power shift
that carried the Jew from outsider to insider, for all the jangled nerves
they caused among caretakers of the Jewish image, they made other
American Jews -- particularly urban Jews -- proud.
But that was a long time ago. In "Humboldt's Gift," Bellow writes that
Americans like their poets to die young because it makes the rest of us
feel tough. I had begun to wonder whether something similar hadn't become
true for novelists. These writers have left no heirs, and nearly 40
years after the youngest, Roth, debuted with "Goodbye, Columbus," we know
they won't. Thirty-one-year-old fiction writer Thomas Beller met Bellow at a
cocktail party in 1991 and introduced himself. "Beller?" he recalls the
response, "that sounds enough like Bellow that I think I can remember
it." No, mentoring is not in their make-up. Either they are still the
game or the game is over.
Having grown up across the street from the West Side's old New Yorker
bookstore, I can remember people climbing the treacherous stairs in
search of the new Bellow, the new Roth, the new Malamud (Bellow dubbed
their troika Hart, Schaffner & Marx). You knew writers from their work
and the black-and-white photograph on the dust jacket. That peek-a-boo
was all you got. But how do such literary lions play now that fiction
readers are addicted to memoirs? As Bellow might put it, you'd have to be
a fool not to realize the literary racket has changed. In 1964, Esquire
ran a map of the literary universe that placed the Partisan Review in the
"red hot center." Twenty-five years later, Esquire updated the feature,
with ICM agent Amanda "Binky" Urban where the Review had been. Today
it would have to be "Oprah."
Still, the machers have shown remarkable staying power in our cultural
imagination, outlasting not only their contemporaries but changes that
have altered beyond recognition the vast literary and cultural machine
that created them. Literacy rates have plummeted, the Web competes with
television for scarcer and scarcer free time, universities that gave
shelter to novelists after the magazine fiction market disappeared are
out of money, and women have come to dominate not just publishing, but
the means -- bookstores, talk shows, college courses -- by which authors'
reputations are made. This would seem like a death sentence. And yet, a
book by Norman Mailer is still an event. The question should perhaps be,
then, not how much these male writers have lost, but how well they've
come through. They are routinely portrayed as static or even reactionary
talents in a swirling cultural cauldron, but in truth Mailer, Bellow and
Roth have shown a keen ability to adapt, to stay current, to remain, in
that favorite '60s phrase, relevant. Compare them, for example, to Heller
today. For that matter, where is Susan Sontag?
I called the novelists for their own take. Mailer's assistant said he
would agree to be interviewed only if the article were solely about him.
I thought of Woody Allen's suggestion that he donate his ego to science.
I next turned to Bellow, who is the most collegial of the three. He
helped put Roth on the map when the Weequahican was his graduate student
at the University of Chicago. Soon after, he exercised droit du seigneur
and picked Roth's pocket of a girlfriend who would later become his
second wife, Susan Glassman. Roth got a bit of his own back in "The Ghost
Writer" with his portrait of Chicago literary mandarin Felix Abravamal, a
novelist so hoity-toity he lives in his own "egosphere." Bellow was not
amused, but somehow the friendship survived. Bellow recently suggested
Roth for the Nobel Prize. (He also joked he would give Mailer the one he
had if Mailer had anything to trade for it.) But Bellow turned out to be
a tease. His assistant said he might call; he would call; if he did call,
it would be without warning, stay by the phone. I felt like Tommy Wilhelm
in "Seize the Day," a "childish mind that thinks people are ready to give
it just because (you) need it." And I wound up just as disappointed. It
turned out that he'd already given a long, raunchy interview to Playboy.
He was tapped out.
Roth exhibited a bunker mentality worthy of "Operation Shylock." His
Manhattan and Connecticut numbers had been changed. He prefers to
initiate calls to people outside his inner circle to keep his number secret. "He
wants to stay away from interviews and that sort of thing for the
moment," says William Styron, a longtime friend, adding that Claire
Bloom's memoir, "Leaving the Doll House," caused Roth "a lot of pain."
In "The Ghost Writer," Nathan Zuckerman, essentially Roth with libel
protection, tells novelist E.I. Lonoff, a stand-in for Bernard Malamud, "No one
with seven books in New York City settles for one piece of ass. That's
what you get for a couplet." Bellow and Mailer, with 39 books
and 11 wives between them, are bracing for a taste of what Roth (two
wives, 21 books) got last year from Bloom. "They obviously aren't
anything you'd want your sister to date," says a publisher friendly with
In "Handsome Is," Harriet Wasserman, Bellow's longtime agent, recounts
their one-night stand, their intense collaboration and the end of their
professional romance, a Bellovian denouement in which he tried to get her
to fire herself. Ultimately Bellow joined Mailer and Roth at the Andrew
Wylie agency. He and the woman he talked to every day for more than
20 years have not spoken since. Like Bloom, Wasserman, equally
unconvincingly, says she isn't interested in revenge. "I always felt like
a character in a Saul Bellow novel," she says, "so I thought, why not
And Mailer's second wife, Adele Mailer, in her new memoir, "Life of the
Party," details a nightmarish marriage to a '50s Mailer even more
drug-addled, horny and socially ambitious than he has portrayed himself
to be. This was the period when "Barbary Shore" and "Deer Park" were
landing with a thud not equaled until the Brat Packers stumbled in the
late '80s. We already know that Mailer stabbed this wife during a drunken
rage after a poor turnout at a campaign fund-raiser for his mayoral race.
But now we learn Mailer liked to unwind by listening to Dave Brubeck
played at full volume. And that at a 1961 nudist party in Provincetown
thrown by Dwight MacDonald, he was too shy to take off his undershorts.
Recently, Gloria Steinem's biographer wrote that when Steinem and
Mailer went to bed, Mailer could not perform. For the man who dubbed
himself the Prizewinner in "The Prisoner of Sex," this is rough stuff.
It's been a tough few years all around for Mailer.
Michiko Kakutani crucified "The Gospel According to the Son" in the New York Times, calling it "a pale,
user-friendly version of ... the Bible ... flattened out (with) New Agey
language." It was Kakutani's second killer review in a row of Mailer's
work. And both ran ahead of the book's publication date, as if Kakutani
wanted to make sure no one missed her point. In truth, "Gospel" has
little to recommend it -- a more timid writer would have put it in the
drawer -- but Mailer could be forgiven for sharing a little of Roth's
paranoia as he goes back to work. Besides, with "Gospel" now on the
bestseller list and "American Pastoral" and "The Actual" nowhere in
sight, Mailer may have achieved the long-sought grail of the novelist: he
may be review-proof.
Kakutani has slapped Roth's hand too, though the blow seemed delivered
more for instruction than punishment. His "Sabbath's Theatre" features an
unrepentant sexual harasser named Mickey Sabbath who is ultimately
brought up on charges before a humorless dean named by Roth, perhaps
unwisely, Kimiko Kakuzaki. Kakutani trounced "Sabbath's Theatre" so
thoroughly that even Mailer, who feels little love for Roth, came to his
defense in a letter to the Times. "It was pretty funny, Norman chinning
himself up on Philip," remembers novelist Richard Stern, a friend of Roth's
and Bellow's from their Chicago days. The book went on to win the
National Book Award.
But Kakutani has fallen in love with "American
Pastoral," Roth's big novel of the turmoil of the '60s, praising in
particular its handling of women, especially the character of Dawn, the
wife of the protagonist, aging sports legend Seymour "Swede" Levov. Dawn,
Kakutani wrote, with somewhat confusing syntax, is "a woman who is
neither a castrating witch nor a passive doormat -- something of a rare
occurrence in recent Roth novels -- but a fully fashioned human being."
Most critics have agreed with Kakutani this time, similarly relieved
that Roth/Zuckerman bows out one-quarter of the way through "American
Pastoral" and leaves the field to a more likable fellow. I felt the
exact opposite, missing every page the solipsistic and prickly
Roth/Zuckerman was gone. "Sabbath's Theatre" may be the less uplifting but it is
by far the better of the two novels: "American Pastoral" reads like a
self-conscious try at a book with Big Themes, full of undigested American
history, undigested Newark history, undigested glove-industry history. It
is as if Thomas Wolfe, whom Roth loved as an adolescent, had reinfected
It is also the first of Roth's novels, according to his friends, to
be composed on a word processor. "The muse needs its harness," cautions
John Updike. According to Bloom's memoir, Roth blamed Updike's harsh New
Yorker review of "Operation Shylock" for his decision to check into a
psychiatric hospital. But Updike says he is not honing the blade for "American Pastoral," which seems to take more than a page
from "Rabbit Redux."
could as well say I've gone Rothean," says Updike, "My last novel ('In the Beauty of the Lillies') starts out
in New Jersey."
Like Roth, Updike knows what it's like to be tagged as a misogynist. He has had his
own battles, especially after "The Witches of Eastwick." "I responded by
trying to write more about women and to write more deeply. You look into
your heart and ask, 'Am I really a male chauvinist? Am I really a sexist?'"
Friends say Bellow resists such introspection. "He's smart about the
money he's made," says a longtime friend. "He doesn't live high. He
doesn't give a shit." "Bellow's writing for the angels," is Updike's take.
Bellow's new novella confirms both opinions. "The Actual" is a brief,
elegant, unapologetic story of a retired Chicago businessman and the
zaftig woman he has loved and fantasized about through four decades. It
proves, if nothing else, that Bellow, is still a tit man. In the end he
wins his beloved's hand in a cemetery.
Bellow too feels the hot breath of the P.C. culture on his back. His
too-quotable defense of Western literature in 1994 -- "Who is the Tolstoy
of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans?" -- left him working damage
control on the op-ed page of the Times, claiming he had been
misunderstood. Novelists, after all, need young readers if they are to
last. The year after "Herzog" became a hit in 1964, Glamour magazine
dispatched a correspondent to Chicago to interview the then-little-known
writer. "It's so easy to play a role before the public," Bellow told a
kittenish freelancer, none other than Gloria Steinem. "Women write you
letters asking how they should entertain a Jewish intellectual. (But) how
much time have you got?"
Eleven years later Vivian Gornick wrote a cover story for the Village
Voice with mug shots of Roth, Mailer, Bellow and Henry Miller, and the
cover line "Why Do These Men Hate Women?" Part of the evidence was the
very same "Herzog" book, whose women Gornick found "dreadful
caricatures." "When I read Mailer, Roth and the later Bellow," Gornick
wrote, "not much lives except the self-absorption ... the sullen
vanities ... the forfeited talents." The article was a sensation. Gornick
recalls Susan Glassman, now divorced from Bellow, coming up to her at a
party and shaking her hand. Today Gornick says she would not bother. "At
the time they were in the cat-bird seat. They were the enemy. Now their
readership is limited to the Jewish Community Center."
Some rough numbers suggest she has a point. Roth's three-book contract
for "Deception," "Patrimony" and "Operation Shylock," said to be for
$1.7 million, left Simon & Schuster deeply in the red. For "Sabbath's
Theatre," he changed publishers. Mailer, his new bestseller
notwithstanding, has been a huge loss-leader for his publisher. "I can
see why Mailer writes the books he's writing," a writer who admires him
told me. "What I can't see is why Random House lets him."
Bellow's fastest selling book was "Herzog," which sold 430,000 hardcover
copies in 1964-65 alone. "More Die of Heartbreak," his last full-length
novel, published in 1985, sold 60,000 copies. "Bellow said to me once,"
recalls his biographer, James Atlas, "and it was very touching actually,
that he had no idea that their moment would be so brief. They feel
superseded by the advent of multiculturalism and the demands of other
But the streets of Chicago, Newark and Brooklyn made these writers
nothing if not tough. Bellow, 81, Mailer, 74, Roth, 64 -- with a Nobel
Prize, three Pulitzers and six National Book Awards among them -- aren't
giving up the brass ring yet. Roth, despite a recent bypass operation,
has said he expects to maintain his current book-every-other-year clip.
Bellow, who nearly died two years ago from contaminated seafood he ate on
vacation, has two novels started. In one, he has told friends, he will
lay to rest the myth he cannot write a fully-fleshed out female
character. And Mailer is now supposed to be at work on his "Harlot's
Ghost" Part II.
"That's the one thing you have to say for the boys," says
Roger W. Straus, president of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. "In many instances
they still succeed in writing serious books. They don't just sit there
and fart around."