Phil Roth dies at 85: An essential list of his must-read books

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Considered one of the most celebrated literary figures of the 20th century, Philip Roth passed away on Tuesday (May 22) night. Roth, who often fearlessly explored male lust, had a fairly long career and by using various guises in his writings, blurred the boundary between reality and fiction. His novels are replete with alter ego(s) that became a vehicle for him to explore various aspects of his personalities — a Jew, an American, a writer and a man, even though he resisted any such labels while he was alive. Nathan Zuckerman, one of his most famous alter ego, is the narrator of nine of his novels. David Kepesh too is believed to be another popular alter-ego, one whose youth, college years and sexual urges were described in the novel The Professor of Desire.

Roth passed away the age of 85 due to congestive heart failure.  His oeuvre is both expansive and enriching. We bring you a list of some essential Philip Roth books that deserve to be read and if possible even re-read. Even most loyal of Roth’s fans admit that there had been a perceptible change in his style over the years and the development later was not much liked by many. Set in parts of New Jersey, Goodbye Columbus was his first book and consisted of a novella and five short stories. The premise and the style defined what Roth later would be synonymous with — provocative, partly titilating and irreverent. It put forth and explored middle-class Jewish identity in a post-war America.

The first novel narrated by his alter-ego Nathan Zuckerman, The Ghost Rider is also one of his most famous works. In the novel Roth, through his protagonist, trains his lens on a Jewish-American and tries to understand its complexities and how is it for a Jew to live in America post World War II. It also brilliantly links the narrative with Anne Frank.

Published in 1969, Portnoy’s Complaint is undoubtedly one of Roth’s most famous and perhaps also his most controversial work. In the novel, Alexander Portnoy, a Jew, narrates his story while speaking to his psychoanalyst in the form of a monologue. The novel also remains memorable for Roth’s candid exploration and treatment of sexuality and its confessional tone.

Published in 1995, Sabbath’s Theater presents the tale of 64-year-old Mickey Sabbat, a former puppeteer. The way the ‘dirty old man’ manipulates women around him and later takes recourse to self-destructive ways to come to terms with the sudden death of his lover is in equal parts fascinating and frightening.

The novel that made Roth win the Pulitzer Prize in 1998 narrates the tale of Seymour “Swede” Levov, a successful Jewish American businessman and former high school star athlete from New Jersey. Levov’s comfortable life comes shattering down when his daughter gets involved with a domestic terrorist group.

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