“What the obsessive man still wanted, when he wasn’t blissfully muttering in bed, was an apology,” Bailey writes in “Philip Roth.” From whom? In short order: villainous ex-wives, the needy children of said ex-wives, feminists who accused him of misogyny, Jewish critics who accused him of anti-Semitism, The New York Times, John Updike, Irving Howe, his bad back, insufficiently devoted editors (“your engine doesn’t throb any longer at the sound of my name,” he chastised one), possibly the Nobel Committee. From the first page, the message is clear: Roth is owed.
Bailey is the acclaimed biographer of writers including John Cheever and Richard Yates — “the safely dead,” as Hermione Lee has described her own subjects. He once expressed suspicion of writing about the living: “I would have a hard time writing a single page without worrying what the consequences might be,” he said, admitting that he “would almost certainly end up diluting the content somewhat.”
At their first meeting in 2012, a job interview in effect, Roth was every part “the imperious maestro,” Bailey recalls in the acknowledgments, examining the credentials of this “gentile from Oklahoma” — what did he know about the Jewish American literary tradition? Apparently mollified, Roth brought out a photograph album dedicated to old girlfriends — “an artifact attesting to the only passion that ever rivaled his writing,” Bailey writes. “He doted on these women and vice versa; several of them came to his bedside while he lay dying, as did I.”
There’s another version of this story. At a panel on Roth, held a year after his death in 2018, Bailey recalled the interview but added a detail that he doesn’t include in the book. Again, Roth quizzed the gentile from Oklahoma, again he produced the album of girlfriends. But then the conversation turned to the Hollywood adaptations of Roth’s work. Bailey mentioned Ali MacGraw, who starred in “Goodbye, Columbus.” (He thought she was “just wow.”)
“I could have taken her out,” Roth said.
“My God, man, why didn’t you?” Bailey asked.
“OK,” Roth replied. “You’re hired.”