Our latest Notable Narrative turns cliché upside down to see what will fall out of its pockets. Maybe you can’t go home again, but Esquire’s Scott Raab wants to see what happens when you try. Raab’s narrative interview takes novelist Philip Roth back to his childhood neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey, which has provided the setting for so much of his fiction.
Published late last year, the interview was pegged to the release of Roth’s 31st book but resurfaced last week when he won the 2011 Man Booker International Prize in a controversial decision. Roth has always provoked strong reactions, and here Raab falls clearly on the side of the admirers, haranguing doubters and raging against the Nobel Prize committee, which has passed over Roth’s body of work year after year.
“You and I go back many years,” Raab tells Roth at one point, inserting himself into the narrative. Raab plays Boswell to Roth’s Johnson and becomes a character in a story of two men: an aging genius, successful but not universally admired, and a younger writer reflecting his subject’s eccentricities even as he works to assure his hero’s immortality.
In Roth’s hometown, the two visit the modest acknowledgements of his success: the green sign that marks the nonexistent Philip Roth Plaza, the simple plaque at his childhood home, the locals who recognize his name but not his face. It feels a little deflated and Roth-esque, but Raab captures the longing and love the author feels for the setting he has borrowed so often in his writing.
If the story seems unsettled, so does Roth, and rarely do style and matter match so well. As the two men wrestle for control over the final scene (who will get to decide how Roth’s story ends? not Roth!), Raab shows how characters are created and stories constructed, and maybe even that you can go home again, if you never really left.