Roth, Wolfe and the Billion-Footed Beast

May has been a cruel month for American letters. Two weeks ago, Tom Wolfe – a pioneer of New Journalism who penned one of most memorable novels of the Reagan era  – died at the age of 88. Earlier this week, Philip Roth the greatest living writer to be overlooked by the Nobel committee died at the age of 85. During a period in which cultural appropriation and marginalization have become political lightning rods and the MeToo movement has defenestrated scores of prominent men, both men’s careers hark back to an era in which literary fiction was mostly a man’s preserve, but eminent writers still had the power to influence the cultural mainstream, to reflect and occasionally reframe America’s most profound dialogues with itself.

Both men were quickly recognized as outsized talents. Roth’s first book, the 1959 novella Goodbye, Columbus, won a National Book Award. Wolfe’s early journalism was so polished and literary that – like the work of Norman Mailer, Hunter Thompson and Joan Didion – it was quickly recognized as more creative nonfiction than journalism, hence the label “New Journalism.” Ethnically, politically, and literarily however, Wolfe and Roth could not have been more different. The literary critic Philip Rahv famously suggested that American writers could be grouped into patrician “palefaces” such as Henry James and Nathaniel Hawthorne or into deliberately lowbrow “redskins” such as Walt Whitman and Mark Twain. By that measure, Wolfe would, for most readers, be irredeemably pale, and Roth unashamedly red. (With typical ingenuity, especially given the prominence of sexual mischief in his fiction, Roth would later argue that it would be better to think of him as a “redface”.) Each man came at the “billion-footed beast” – Wolfe’s pitch perfect description of the chaotic American reality – from utterly different viewpoints, and wrote unforgettably about what they found there.

Wolfe famously dressed in white suits throughout his adult life and chronicled both high and low society with the air of a bemused anthropologist. This detachment seems to have been a habit of mind,  his undergraduate thesis was entitled “A Zoo Full of Zebras: Anti-Intellectualism in America”. Roth, by contrast, burrowed into the culture through a series of intimate explorations, mainly of the lives of a Jewish community in New Jersey.  But neither man can be easily reduced to either of Rahv’s categories. Wolfe was a provincial outsider to the world of the Manhattan intelligentsia and he was always  sceptical of, and treated with suspicion by, the true elite. His hugely successful first novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, written at the age of 56, earned him the condescension of more established writers who saw him as an arriviste. John Updike, for instance, scathingly opined that Wolfe’s fiction “amounts to entertainment, not literature, even literature in a modest aspirant form.” Roth, on the other hand, was celebrated by the New Yorker crowd and was both deeply read in, and influenced by, key European writers. However narrow his focus on a specific parochial subset of American life may have been, he wrote about his characters with a literary sophistication that was second to none.

Intriguingly, Rahv’s distinction seems to collapse if Roth’s and Wolfe’s oeuvres are considered as a whole. As Adam Gopnik notes, beneath Wolfe’s stylistic affectations lay “cultural politics [with] a distasteful taint of xenophobia, with the implication that European émigré invaders had spoiled American demotic energies”. Roth, on the other hand, especially in his later work, explored the faultiness of America’s culture wars with a universality that completely transcended the specificities of his plots. With a few tweaks, for instance, The Human Stain, could  easily be rewritten as a West Indian meditation on the dilemmas of a mixed race identity, an exploration of the complex inner lives of those who are, in Derek Walcott’s memorable phrase “divided to the vein.”  The purity and speed of Roth’s prose often hid the depths to which he plumbed his characters’ anxieties and neuroses, but his books were undeniably transformative experiences for a sensitive reader. As he once observed: “Updike and Bellow hold their flashlights out into the world, reveal the world as it is now. I dig a hole and shine my flashlight into the hole”.

As the Caribbean’s few remaining literary icons inch toward the exits, it is worth noting that most of our rising stars are more influenced by globally popular writers like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Zadie Smith, Roberto Bolaño and Junot Diaz than by the Anglocentric tradition which shaped the Windrush generation. Writers like Marlon James and Nicole Dennis Benn, for instance, shine flashlights with Roth-like candour into taboo subjects like race and sexuality. A new wave of Caribbean writing is tackling our troubled history, and present, with profoundly different assumptions to those held by the largely middle-class, expatriate metropolitans who preceded them. We are, in other words, living through a Caribbean version of the moment at which both Roth and Wolfe first made their names. Now, more than ever, we should be reading these writers, and debating their work, as they decipher the footprints of our own billion-footed beasts.

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