Philip Roth

When I took my first creative-writing class back when Lyndon Johnson was president, my fondest dream was to become a Jewish writer. That was a daunting ambition in view of the fact that I was a WASP from the rural Midwest. But my literary heroes at the time were mostly urban Jews—Bellow, Malamud, Singer and, especially, Philip Roth. His novella, Goodbye Columbus, had fed my ambition to be a writer, introducing me to worlds foreign to my experience, but in prose that seemed effortless, floating up off the page to make people and places come to life. That was a half century ago, and I’m still reading Roth, and he’s still conjuring worlds with language as supple and vivid as ever. In Nemesis, his latest novel, Roth re-creates an atmosphere I dimly remember, before the Salk vaccine eradicated the annual summertime fear of polio. His main character, Bucky Cantor, is engaging and fully realized, a little man with a big sense of decency and duty, facing the challenges a polio epidemic presents to him in his role as a playground supervisor in wartime New Jersey. Character and conflict are the heart of narrative –that was one of the first lessons I learned in that long ago course in writing fiction—and Roth is still showing writers how it’s done.