No Model but Itself
Die in your prime and it is tragic. Die in your ninth decade and it is the debt paid, the quittance. Grief for those struck down too soon goes on and on. We are helplessly haunted by what might have been; a penumbra of vanished possibilities surrounds untimely death. But grief for the elderly is formal, stately. Most of all it is end-oriented.
You roll a boulder across the mouth of the cave.
You move on.
In The Ghost Writer, Nathan Zuckerman says of Felix Abravanel that the master's charm was "a moat so oceanic that you could not even see the great turreted and buttressed thing it had been dug to protect." Philip too could seem a beguiling but remote citadel: august, many-towered, lavishly defended. Those who reached the inner keep met there someone quite different from the persona devised for public purposes. Still vitally present at home was the young man he'd remained all along, full of satirical hijinks and gleeful ventriloquisms and antic fun building to crescendos. Imaginary relatives were a specialty. I recall for example Paprika Roth, a retired stripper living in the Florida Panhandle. A glint in the eye told you hilarity was on the road.
"Ben, do you remember when Mrs. Fischbein was on The $64,000 Question?"
"A little before my time, Philip."
"Well, Mrs. Fischbein had walloped the competition. She'd advanced to the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question itself. Came the drum roll and the announcer said, 'For sixty-four thousand dollars, Mrs. Fischbein, who was-the first man?' 'I wouldn't tell you for a million dollars!' cried Mrs. Fischbein."
The place of origin, Newark's Weequahic section, was his Great Code and Rosetta stone. I mean Weequahic as endlessly rediscovered through alchemical imagination, that flame turned up under experience for the smelting of novels. "Ours was not a neighborhood steeped in darkness," says Zuckerman in American Pastoral. "The place was bright with industriousness. There was a big belief in life and we were steered relentlessly in the direction of success: a better existence was going to be ours . . . Am I wrong to think we delighted in living there? No delusions are more familiar than those inspired in the elderly by nostalgia, but am I completely mistaken to think that living as well-born children in Renaissance Florence could not have held a candle to growing up within aromatic range of Tabachnik's pickle barrels? Am I mistaken to think that even back then, in the vivid present, the fullness of life stirred our emotions to an extraordinary extent? Has anywhere since so engrossed you in its ocean of details? The detail, the immensity of the detail, the force of the detail, the weight of the detail-the rich endlessness of detail surrounding you in your young life like the six feet of dirt that'll be packed on your grave when you're dead."
Philip spent his final three weeks in the cardiac intensive-care unit at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. A lot of women and a smattering of men surrounded him. We were friends, lovers, protgs, relatives, employees, representing every decade of his adult life. (This I know: When my time comes, the waiting room will not be crowded with ex-lovers.)
On the twenty-first day, the attending came out of Philip's room and said: "He is philosopher, no?"
"Yes," I said. And so it really was. Amid the general weeping, Philip was Socratic, as if instructing us, his loved ones, in how to die. He even remembered, like Socrates, a small debt owed-to Mrs. Solano, his housekeeper.
Near the end he asked for a moment alone with me and said something I wrote down as soon as I decently could: "I have been to see the great enemy, and walked around him, and talked to him, and he is not to be feared. I promise."
There had been earlier brushes with the great enemy, any one of which might have proved fatal. One occurred on August 22, 2012. Canadian geese were starting south. We'd gone to Litchfield for dinner and dressed up a bit for the occasion. Philip was in a sports jacket he claimed to have bought with the earnings from Goodbye, Columbus. (It may nearly have been so; he cared nothing for clothes.) Seated in our usual booth at the West Street Grill, we ordered the special soup, their gazpacho, sweet and crunchy with the local beefsteaks and cucumbers. I had a baseball question on the tip of my tongue: What was the name of "the natural," the player shot by a lady stalker in a Chicago hotel room? He gave me an amused look that darkened into puzzlement, then fear.
Then he pitched forward into the soup, unconscious. Too astounded for anything but composure, I summoned the management. Medics appeared almost immediately. As if by further magic, a stretcher sprang up from the floor to receive him, who though all but comatose was saying something: an attempt, entirely characteristic, at telling the medics how to do their job.
Moments later I was in the front seat of the ambulance beside the driver, with Philip and the two medics behind us. "Thready pulse," said one to the other. And then, to the driver: "Better turn on the siren." I thought, here is how it ends, and considered whom I would contact first. Thomas Mann's Aschenbach and the last line of Death in Venice came to mind, proving literature matters even in an emergency: "Before nightfall," writes Mann, "a shocked and respectful world received the news of his decease." Philip had equipped several of us with detailed instructions on how every aspect of his burial and memorial service should be handled. My mind veered to these.
Twenty minutes after our arrival at Charlotte Hungerford Hospital in Torrington, the ER physician explained that what Philip had suffered was an accumulated reaction to one of the drugs he'd been taking. When I entered the examining room Philip said, "No more books." At first I didn't know what he meant. What he meant, I shortly realized, was that Nemesis, his thirty-first, published two years earlier, would be his last. Thus he announced his retirement.
"You look right good for back from the dead," I told him.
"Just so we're clear," he said, "I did die." He had the sweetest smile sometimes. Now he took up the story he hadn't got to at dinner: In the summer of 1949, Eddie Waitkus, lefty All-Star with the Cubs, the Phillies, the Orioles and the Phillies again, was shot by a deranged admirer, Ruth Ann Steinhagen, in her room at the Edgewater Beach Hotel, to which she'd coaxed him with a letter: "Please come soon. I won't take much of your time. I promise."
Good as her word, she plugged him when he came through the door. Ruth Ann's plan had evidently been to shoot herself too in a Mayerling-style bloodbath, but she told the cops afterward that she couldn't find another bullet.
Eddie survived but never got his game back. Ruth Ann reported that after she shot him he'd said: "What'd you do that for, baby?" He spent the rest of his days wondering and died at fifty-three of esophageal cancer. Ruth Ann served a year in the madhouse at Kankakee and, released to the care of family, lived uneventfully for decades on Chicago's North Side, waiving off all queries.
What proved evergreen was "What'd you do that for, baby?"-endlessly applicable and between Philip and me a fresh source of laughter each time one of us said it. Is the quick of friendship here, in finding the same things lastingly funny? Because it was he, because it was I? "Such a friendship has no model but itself," says Montaigne, "and can only be compared to itself . . . And is some mysterious quintessence." Because it was he. Because it was I.
There was no dramatic arc to our life together. It was not like a marriage, still less like a love affair. It was as plotless as friendship ought to be. We spent thousands of hours in each other's company. He was fully half my life. I cannot hope for another such friend.
One of the many authors Philip read in his years of retirement was himself, everything from Brenda Patimkin asking Neil Klugman to hold her glasses to Bucky Cantor teaching his playground charges, thirty books later, how to throw the javelin. I believe he took a death-defying satisfaction in the vastness of what he'd wrought, a shelf of work augmenting the soul of the nation and built to outlast whatever unforeseeable chances and changes await us and our descendants.
"And then he hurled the javelin," Philip wrote at journey's end. "You could see each of his muscles bulging when he released it into the air. He let out a strangulated yowl of effort . . . a noise expressing the essence of him-the naked battle cry of striving excellence . . . Running with the javelin aloft, stretching his throwing arm back behind his body, bringing the throwing arm through to release the javelin high over his shoulder-and releasing it then like an explosion-he seemed to us invincible."
The Dignity of an Elderly Gentleman
Delirious near the end, he said, "We're going to the Savoy!"-surely the jauntiest dying words on record. But it was Riverside Memorial Chapel, the Jewish funeral parlor at Amsterdam and Seventy-Sixth, we were bound for. I was obliged to reidentify the body once we arrived there from New York-Presbyterian. A lady undertaker pointed the way to the viewing room and said: "You may stay for as long as you like. But do not touch him." Duly draped, Philip looked serene on his plinth-like a Roman emperor, one of the good ones. I pulled up a chair and managed to say, "Here we are." Here we are at the promised end. A phrase from The Human Stain came to me: "the dignity of an elderly gentleman free from desire who behaves correctly." I wanted to tell him he was doing fine, that he was a champ at being dead, bringing to it all the professionalism he'd brought to previous tasks.
To talk daily with someone of such gifts had been a salvation. I'm not who I'd have been without him. "We've laughed so hard," he said to me some years ago. "Maybe write a book about our friendship." I take this as my warrant and write here without reticence, knowing the truth to be all that matters now.
Our conversation was about everything-novels, politics, families, dreams, sex, baseball, food, ex-friends, ex-lovers. But our keynote was American history, for which Philip was ravenous, consuming one big scholarly book after another. He became a great writer in the course of the eighties and especially the nineties when his novels became history-haunted. In the American trilogy, American Pastoral, I Married a Communist and The Human Stain, the heroes, Swede Levov, Ira Ringold and Coleman Silk, are solid men taken to pieces when the blindsiding force of history comes to call. Such was Philip's mature theme: unpredictable brutalities at large in the world and the illusoriness of ever being safe from them.
In keeping with the unseemliness of my profession (as he would say) I'd been taking notes all along. A lot of conversation got squirreled away. "Memories of the past," he wrote, "are not memories of facts but memories of your imaginings of the facts." Still, what I am struggling for in these pages is the fact of Philip as he was. He doesn't need me or anyone to ornament him. Imagination in memoir may indeed be inevitable, but I am treating it here as a trespasser and have tried at every turn to bar the way.
Writing a novel makes a god of you. Writing a memoir does not. This book is a nonfiction portrait and strives to be nothing else. In this kind of portraiture, the facts, not how you can metamorphose them, are what count-metamorphosis of the facts, the cardinal virtue of fiction, being the cardinal sin of memoir. Philip writes: "What one chooses to reveal in fiction is governed by a motive fundamentally aesthetic; we judge the author of a novel by how well he or she tells the story. But we judge morally the author of an autobiography, whose governing motive is primarily ethical as against aesthetic. How close is the narration to the truth? Is the author hiding his or her motives, presenting his or her actions and thoughts to lay bare the essential nature of conditions or trying to hide something, telling in order not to tell?" Is the author's presumed candor in fact a dance of the seven veils? All I can say is I am trying here for candor alone.
One day I reported on a strange case I'd been reading about. A man named Thomas Beer, who was Stephen Crane's first biographer, wove a tissue of creative lies, inventing loves and friendships that never were, even concocting virtuoso letters from Crane. It was fiction posing as fact. A succession of Crane scholars went charging down Beer's blind alleys.
"May his bad example haunt you," Philip said.
He was genuinely puzzled by gossips. "All the fun of a secret is in keeping it. Why blab?" Maybe he took this view because he'd been more victimized by gossip than other people. He was oversensitive and sometimes mistook genuine concern for idle chatter. One mutual friend particularly drew fire for talking to anyone who'd listen about a recent operation Philip had undergone. Orthopedic surgeries could be openly reported, but cardiac procedures were confidential. "Can you imagine? He told five more people after I told him to stop. All of whom called this afternoon." In our friend's defense, I said his gossiping was like a locomotive and could stop only gradually.
Secrets and deceptions of every kind appealed to Philip. He was not averse to cuckolding inattentive husbands. More wholesome opportunities for subterfuge were catnip too. Some years ago when I was submitting for publication a novel I'd written, he suggested I employ a pseudonym. We settled on Shoshana Lipshitz, a winner by the sound of the curriculum vitae we concocted: four years at Hotchkiss, women's studies and astronomy at Harvard, an internship at The Paris Review, Romance languages, European wanderings, the whole bit. We decided she was very pretty, a Natalie Portman type. To top it off, I proposed an archeological year in Mesoamerica but Philip said we were getting carried away.
"Maybe publishers won't like being fooled like this," I said. "They know how to google." For our part, we googled what turned out to be a small army of Shoshana Lipshitzes, variously active in the world. Thus our ruse, doomed to quick exposure had we launched it, died at birth.
While he was my best friend, and I his, there were rooms in the fortress of secrets marked P. Roth that I know I was excluded from. This goes both ways, but he was an incomparable student of inner lives, of what's invisibly afoot. He managed to figure out more about me than I ever could about him. It need hardly be said that we weren't equals, and not just because he was twenty years older. His love acted on me, as on everyone, like a truth serum. He possessed the terrible gift of intimacy. He caused people to tell things they told no one else. His mineral-hard stare was impossible to hide from.