Newark, New Jersey, and Philip Roth

I lived for many years in and around Newark, New Jersey. I had moved from San Diego to Los Angeles and then onto St. Louis on the way to Northern New Jersey. I started my serious adult career in a tall office building in the center of Newark that famously had trilobites fossilized in the marble surrounding the elevators. For a while I lived just over the line in East Orange but later moved to a small apartment close to the park (on the Belleville side). I took the city trolley into work most days or a bus that ran down Franklin and dropped me off near the Newark Museum.

Philip Roth

This was a time not long after the riots but before the major changes to the downtown shopping areas. Newark was a fine city, not without its problems, but well-controlled by the likes of Hugh Addonizio and Tony Imperiale with an open hand and a pocketful of corruption.

Although I was most familiar with the North Ward and the neighboring towns like Nutley, Bloomfield, and Belleville, I commuted to work for several years with a co-worker from the south side:  Weequahic and Irvington. This was Philip Roth country but it was early in the writer’s career so I didn’t recognize my familiarity with the many local sites that would later make his novels so real to me.

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Philip Roth Retires

We were just considering Roth’s Nemesis in an earlier post and little did we know that Nemesis would be Roth’s last novel. He has announced his retirement from writing. Considering his age—80—this seems like a wonderful idea. I will miss the occasional new novel from the writer but I do have a few to catch up on and being retired myself, I certainly wouldn’t want a concern for a few hours of my reading pleasure to interfere with Roth’s well earned retirement.

In an interview with the French press, Roth revealed that he was no longer interested in fiction, both reading and writing. I think I know how he might feel:  as much as I love to read and as much pleasure as I get from reading and discussing books, I find myself sitting idly on the lanai watching the leaves turn color, the pattern of splashes the fountain makes in the lagoon, the shadow of a large wading bird soaring just behind the tall pines. There might even be a book in my hand and a paragraph only half read under my finger, but I drift away from the fiction and stare at the real world until hunger drives me into the kitchen for a fried bologna sandwich (white bread a mayo, of course) or my dog Ricky decides to remove my kneecap with his raspy tongue as a prelude to me taking him for a walk.

What I see beyond the grass, over the pond, between the trees, and floating in the sky, is reality; everything I read is filtered through the mind of man and it is therefore fiction. Even the textbooks used in the schools around this country are fiction (especially in Texas).

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I have been reading one of Philip Roth’s recent short novels, Nemesis, and it certainly allowed me to identify and reminisce about the quasi-historical and richly human observations the author allowed me to share. The subject is that frightening summer disease which seemed to strike down young kids for doing normal summer things like playing baseball, running around, jumping through the sprinklers, cooling off at the public swimming pool. Nowadays we don’t think too much about polio (misnamed infantile paralysis) but not that long ago it was very real and very scary. Al Qaeda today does not come close to the fear and misery polio brought to unsuspecting families in all parts of this country.

The big polio breakout was back in the early twentieth century (as was a deadly influenza outbreak) but Roth is writing about the way polio affected his world encapsulated in the Newark, New Jersey area, especially around Weequahic Park and Irvington. This is my first connection to this and most of the author’s works:  I moved into the Newark area to start my career after college and became quite familiar with many of the sites and events Roth writes about. I suppose it is an added advantage to be able to re-image a location from memory and not just from the prose of the author.

It also made a simple contrast to the youth dying in Europe and on the islands in the Pacific during World War II: what is scarier, war or polio?

He was struck by how lives diverge and how powerless each of us is up against the force of circumstance. And where does God figure in this? Why does He set one person down in Nazi-occupied Europe with a rifle in his hands and the other in the Indian Hill dining lodge in front of a plate of macaroni and cheese? Why does He place one Weequahic child in polio-ridden Newark for the summer and another in the splendid sanctuary of the Poconos? For someone who had previously found diligence and hard work the solution to all his problems, there was now much that was inexplicable to him about why what happens, happens as it does.

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