Philip Roth knows things.

We’re reading I Married a Communist by Philip Roth for book club this month, and while I shouldn’t be surprised that I had one of those reading moments when you stop, exhale, raise your eyebrows, go back and read the passage again, I was sort of surprised that it happened on the first page.

We read American Pastoral last year and it was a giant octopus of a book. Sometimes it thrashed in countless directions, in anger and fear. Sometimes it swam along as graceful and smooth as can be. And it went deep. (Hmm, this metaphor has legs! Ho!) It was gorgeous and challenging and we wrestled with it – on our own, reading it – at book club, dissecting it and putting it back together, or trying to anyway. That book club meeting was about a week after my knee surgery. I was on crutches, my injuries still felt fresh, personal. My mom was in town to help out, so I brought her with me so she could have a glass of wine, meet my book club ladies, and understand why it is such a source of joy in my life. I read American Pastoral under duress. I was frantically preparing to be on crutches for six weeks, gingerly probing worse case scenarios like a tongue returning to a sore tooth. Desperate to lose myself, it was rich and thick, the perfect book to take up the whole of my mind. I was a ball of angst, agitation and worry and American Pastoral is nothing if not a monument to angst, agitation and worry. Maybe that’s why it resonated so much with me.

Or maybe, it was just that good.

We’ve been back to school for a couple of weeks. Saint James seems muted about it. I’m not sure what to make of it. I’m not sure what he needs. What exactly does he expect to be doing with his time right now? He can’t very well hunt for creatures in the bushes and play soccer all day long. Maybe it’s too much to expect him to be excited about school – being a fourth grader is essentially his job. How many people do we know who are excited by their jobs? And yet, I wish he was. I wish he was fired up, tingling, hungry. 

So the passage that stopped me cold? It’s Roth simply introducing a character – that of Murray Ringold, a teacher. And in his muscular prose, Roth brings him to life and makes me want him for my son. To light that fire.

“His passion was to explain, to clarify, to make us understand, with the result that every last subject we talked about he broke down into its principal elements no less meticulously than he diagrammed sentences on the blackboard. His special talent was for dramatizing inquiry, for casting a strong narrative spell even when he was being strictly analytic and scrutinizing aloud, in his clear cut way, what we read and wrote.

Along with the brawn and the conspicuous braininess, Mr. Ringold brought with him into the classroom a charge of visceral spontaneity that was a revelation to tamed, respectablized kids who were yet to comprehend that obeying a teacher’s rules of decorum had nothing to do with mental development. There was more importance than perhaps even he imagined in his winning predilection for heaving a blackboard eraser in your direction when the answer you gave didn’t hit the mark. Or maybe there wasn’t. Maybe Mr. Ringold knew very well that what boys like me needed to learn was not only how to express themselves with precision and acquire a more discerning response to words, but how to be rambunctious without being stupid, how not to be too well concealed or too well behaved, how to begin to release the masculine intensities from the institutional rectitude that intimidated bright kids the most.”

Holy smokes, Philip Roth. Is it mere coincidence that twice now, your words feed me precisely what I’m craving?

Or are you just that good?

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