No more books. No more revolts against the self. No more self-righteousness as self-parody. No more laugh-out-loud desperation. No more boundless desire. No more waning desire. No more Jews. No more America. No more fucking.
It’s now been more than two years since Roth announced his retirement and still I keep expecting the next book to come. Even when I fell behind in my reading, there was comfort in knowing the next novel was waiting, and that, whatever its flaws, it would come packaged with the most intimate and absorbing voice in contemporary fiction, a voice that grabs hold from the opening sentences and never lets go, a voice, as Lonoff tells Zuckerman in The Ghost Writer, “that begins at around the back of the knees and reaches well above the head.”
No more. The only thing left was to read Claudia Roth Pierpont’s Philip Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books. Pierpont’s marvelous overview of Roth’s career left me surprised by how much of Roth’s work I’d forgotten. I could recall plenty of favorite scenes, but not always the plots. In some cases I couldn’t remember whether the protagonist had been Zuckerman or Kepesh. Having read Roth’s two memoirs, The Facts and Patrimony, I couldn’t even remember if some of the scenes I recalled were from the novels or from Roth’s own life. The overarching effect was one the author of The Counter Life and Operation Shylock might have appreciated: There were a dozen different Philip Roths swimming in my head, and I no longer knew which, if any, were real.
The Roth that emerges in Pierpont’s book is not the recalcitrant loner I’d sometimes pictured sealed off in his writing studio in Connecticut but a natural showman who is every bit as funny in person as on the page. And if Roth would often work outward from his own life, Pierpont draws attention to a very different strand in his creative process. In many cases Roth began not with the real but with an inversion of the real, with a simple question of what the world might be like if things had gone in a different direction. “I generally spend a lot of time in the ‘what if’ stage,” Roth tells Pierpont.
What if. Just six letters, and yet once heated up in Roth’s imagination, those six letters could explode into hundreds of pages, a literary big bang that produced perhaps the greatest American novelist of the last 100 years. What if Anne Frank had survived (The Ghost Writer)? What if Roth’s literary double turned into a giant mammary (The Breast)? What if American fascism had taken hold in the 1930s (The Plot Against America)? What if there were another Philip Roth (Operation Shylock)?
Roth turned away from the short story after winning the National Book Award for Goodbye, Columbus, but Pierpont reminded me of one additional story, one additional “what if.” Or perhaps “story” isn’t the right word? The piece, “‘I Always Wanted You to Admire My Fasting’; or, Looking at Kafka” is a literary hybrid of sorts. It begins with an essay on Kafka’s last year, a moment when he seems to have at last escaped the father he famously imagined stretched out across a map of the world. Kafka has moved to Berlin with Dora Dymant, the young Jewish woman he met at a seaside resort in Germany. For the first time in his life, he is no longer in the throes of the self-loathing that it is so hard to imagine him without. Though he has previously shown little interest in his Jewish heritage, he begins to study Hebrew, even attends a series of lectures at the Berlin Academy for Jewish Studies. More surprising still, he no longer puts up any resistance when Max Brod urges him to publish a few stories.
And then, a month before his 41st birthday, just as he is beginning to breathe, Kafka dies of tuberculosis of the lungs and larynx. For Kafka, “the poet of the ungraspable and the unresolved,” in Roth’s perfect phrasing, it couldn’t possibly have turned out otherwise. Roth leaves us with the image of the inconsolable Dora, who, for days after Kafka’s death, whispers “My love, my love, my good one…”
Here, with no further introduction, Roth’s Kafka essay gives way to a story. Roth imagines a world in which Kafka, having survived both his tuberculosis and the Nazis, ends up a Hebrew-school teacher in New Jersey. Kafka—his pupils call him “Kishka”—is set up with the 9-year-old narrator’s spinster aunt, Rhoda, and, unlikely though it seems, the two hit it off. There is a brief moment when it appears the fictional Kafka will escape his unhappy ending. Then, after a sexual misadventure in Atlantic City, Kafka writes Rhoda four letters in three days. She sits at the kitchen table and cries until midnight.
At the story’s end, the narrator, now in college, learns of the fictional Kafka’s death via an obituary in Essex County’s local Jewish tabloid: “Dr. Kafka was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia, and was a refugee from the Nazis. He leaves no survivors.” Roth follows these lines with a subtle turn back to the voice of the essayist: “He also leaves no books, no Trial, no Castle, no Diaries. The dead man’s papers are claimed by no one, and disappear…”
It is possible to imagine Kafka in America, but a Kafka who finds happiness? A Kafka who is celebrated as an artistic genius during his own lifetime? “[W]hy, that would be stranger even than a man turning into an insect,” Roth concludes. “No one would believe it, Kafka least of all.”
What if Kafka had lived? What if Roth had died? The most startling of Roth’s “what if” books might be the “what if” of Indignation, one of the shorter books he produced in the last stage of his career. Indignation’s narrator, Marcus Messner, grows up in mid-20th-century Newark just as Roth did. Roth’s father sold insurance. Marcus’ father is a kosher butcher. Marcus, again like Roth, enrolls in the Newark branch of Rutgers University, then flees for the same reason Roth cites for his own flight from Newark: His father had become a pain in the ass. Roth transferred to Bucknell, in rural Pennsylvania. Messner, in a nod to Sherwood Anderson, transfers to the fictional Winesburg College in rural Ohio.
But Marcus never grows up to be Zuckerman or Kepesh—the fictional disguises that appear in so many of Roth’s novels. Instead, he is expelled from college and sent to the front lines in Korea where a bayonet shreds his intestines and almost severs his leg. Throughout much of Indignation we’re left to believe that Marcus is narrating from the dead. Roth, in a rare turn to the metaphysical, even invents an afterlife—a haunting eternity of nothing but memory and self-judgment. Near the book’s end we discover that Marcus is, in fact, alive and narrating the story from his morphine haze. Then Roth kills him again—this time for good.
Roth could imagine Kafka as a Hebrew-school teacher in America. He could imagine a fictionalized version of himself turning into a breast and another fictionalized version of himself dying. But there is one Roth that seems to have been harder for him to imagine than any other: Not a dead Roth who never becomes a writer but a living Roth who never becomes a writer; a Roth who spends year after year doing something other than turning sentences over in his head; a Roth who doesn’t even manage to become an attorney—the profession he gave to Portnoy; a Roth who spends his entire life in the working-class world that he was born into.
And yet, after reading Pierpont’s account of Roth’s childhood, a Roth who never makes it very far from Newark seems entirely plausible. When Roth was 11, his father needed an emergency appendectomy and was given less than a 50-50 chance to live. And, though his father survived and returned to work, there still wasn’t enough money for Roth to leave Newark for college. After graduating from high school in January 1950, Roth took a job as a stock clerk in the S. Klein department store with plans to start at the Newark branch of Rutgers in the fall. He was able to transfer to Bucknell only because his father received a promotion.
It doesn’t require a great leap of imagination to picture things going the other way for the Roths: Philip, rather than leaving Rutgers for Bucknell, instead leaves Rutgers for a job that will keep his family from losing their home. It’s not as though Roth couldn’t have done it. Roth became a great—and astonishingly productive—man of letters, at least in part because he’s always had something of the tireless Jewish shopkeeper in him, always approached the job of book-writing with a stamina almost unheard of among contemporary writers. It was this famous industriousness—which Roth himself attributes to the model set by his father—that made Roth’s retirement so jarring to his fans. But what if circumstance had redirected all that industriousness in another direction? What if a little bit of bad luck had sent Philip Roth down a different path?
No more books. But what if there had never been any books?
It’s the fall of 1984. I’m 33, teaching creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania, less than a year removed from a six-year relationship I never thought would end. My well-received book of stories is old news. The second act, the novel, is already under contract, already paid for with an advance that is far greater—and far more burdensome—than anything I anticipated. I haven’t yet admitted it to myself, but by this point part of me knows that I’ll never finish, that the 80 pages I’ve written and rewritten are not the beginning of something but the end of something.
This is the state I’m in—mildly depressed, more agitated than at any point I can remember, but not yet entirely without hope—when my downstairs neighbor, Chaim, tells me about his butcher. We’re standing by the mailboxes in the entryway to our building, and Chaim, the only Orthodox Jew I know, is talking about this kosher butcher with the type of enthusiasm usually reserved for a cult leader. “Just go and listen to him talk,” he says. “Trust me. You’ve never heard anything like it.”
“He sounds great, Chaim.” I touch his arm as I say it, exactly the type of condescending gesture that would drive Amy so crazy.
“I’m telling you, the guy’s a riot.” We’ve been standing together for almost a minute and Chaim’s smile still hasn’t gone down.
“I’ll be sure to stop by.”
I have no intention of going. Had my route back from Penn not taken me right by his shop, I doubt I ever would have met him. But twice a week, I reach the stop sign at the corner of Haverford and 66th, and there, in my peripheral vision, is the straight-hemmed blue awning, and there, above the awning, is the modest wooden sign with the chipped corners: “ROTH’S KOSHER MEATS” in stenciled block letters, and, just below, in a fading black script, “Since 1953.” One afternoon that fall the thought of going home to my empty apartment to write seems even less appealing than allowing an eccentric kosher butcher to talk my ear off. I pull over.
The window-dressing is even less inspiring than the sign: a few lonely sausages hanging from frayed ropes, a single rectangle of flesh stranded on an island of ice—“Chuck Roast/$8.99 lb.” according to the handwritten placard taped to the window. I haven’t even stepped into the shop and already I have the urge to turn back around.
The way Chaim described Phil the butcher—that’s what he called him—I expect to be hit with borscht-belt one-liners the moment I push open the glass door. Instead I get the opposite: silence, not so much as a nod in my direction from the stone-faced man behind the counter in the apron and white paper cap.
I take a minute to look around, adjust to the smell that, while not exactly foul, hits me like a sharp jab. The shop is nothing like the kosher sections you see nowadays in Philadelphia’s upscale grocery stores. The half-empty shelves that line the back wall of Roth’s Kosher are stocked only with the bare necessities: Sabbath candles, yahrzeit candles for the dead, a single row of neatly lined jars of matjes pickled herring. The rest is meat: a refrigerated porcelain display that stretches from one side of the shop to the other. The smaller cuts, pre-wrapped in cellophane, sit in open bins across the bottom; on top, shielded by a long slant of glass, are the real treasures: thick slabs of deep-red blade steaks, a standing rib roast sliced clean at the top of its arch, forequarters of lamb neck laid out one over the other like fallen dominoes.
Phil, tall, solid, no less imposing for his weariness, is waiting for my order under a curtain of salamis. He must have been in his early 50s at the time, and his retreating hairline has given way to a sweep of forehead that is framed on either side by salt-and-pepper curls. His brown eyes, hooded by thick, unruly eyebrows, are at once remote and tinged with depth, the somber eyes of an ancestor in an old photo. It’s a handsome, unmistakably Jewish face, but not the face of the hyper-articulate raconteur I have been promised. It is hard to believe this is the same person that Chaim suggested should have a one-man show on Broadway.
It is only after I ask for a half-pound of corned beef that he looks directly at me and asks if I live in the area. I tell him that I do, and after that we chat for a few minutes in the way any two strangers might. I mention my work and feel—even though it is entirely true—that I am lying when the word “writer” escapes my lips. Phil tells me that he learned his trade as a teen while working at a kosher butcher shop in Newark.
For no other reason than that I feel compelled to fill the silence as he weighs my order, I confess that I don’t keep kosher.
“I don’t blame you,” Phil says.
It isn’t the response I had expected. I ask Phil what he thinks about the claim that kosher beef isn’t as tender as the non-kosher variety.
“Not only is it true that kosher meat is worse, that’s the whole point,” he says. “Forget all the mishegas about the blood and the split hooves and the cud chewing. What really makes it kosher is that it’s not as good as what the goyim get.” A boyish grin appears on his face and is quickly squelched. “Even I don’t know where half of these rules come from. Probably some ancient priest did a taste test of the different parts of the animal”—he pantomimes taking a bite of food and letting it sit on his tongue for a moment before spitting it out in disgust: “Feh. Too good. Put it on the treyf list!” Another pantomimed bite: “Absolutely delicious. Treyf!”
The young Italian guy I’d spotted stabbing at a carcass in the back of the shop has now pulled out a crate and sat down to listen.
“If our meat was as good as their meat why keep kosher at all?” Phil continues. “No, you pay extra for kosher meat because you’re getting a little taste of Jewish suffering with each bite. That’s the secret ingredient. No need to marinate. Each cut comes soaked in 4,000 years of Jewish tears.” He looks up from the corned beef he is now wrapping in wax paper. “That’s why no one comes here anymore—Jewish suffering is a lost art in this country. Not that I blame the Jews. It’s the American goy’s fault. The American goy, without evening trying, without even bothering to think about it, found the answer that has eluded anti-Semites for thousands of years. The way to get rid of the Jews, it turns out, isn’t to persecute them. Never mind all the raping and plundering and killing. This the Jews can handle. This is another day at the office for the Jews. If you want to get rid of the Jews, what you do is invite them into your country clubs, let them enroll in your universities, give them executive-level positions at Metropolitan Life and Johnson & Johnson. If you’re in a big hurry to be done with them, let them marry your children too. You’ll see how fast they disappear.
“The American goy figured it out—a stroke of genius, really: The trick isn’t to have a pogrom but to not have a pogrom. The trick isn’t to call them ‘kike face’ but to not call them ‘kike face.’ Instead of spitting on them, you say hello, shake their hand. Instead of painting a swastika on the garage door, you do nothing to the garage door, or any other part of their homes. Counterintuitive though it may seem, you refrain from hurling even a single rock through the rear windshield of their automobiles.”
He keeps going for another five minutes, but by this point he already has me. I begin to stop by once, sometimes twice, a week. If there was a hint of genuine frustration in the routine Phil delivered that first day, it is perhaps because he really doesn’t seem to be making any money. Most of the kosher-keeping Jews in the area have already migrated to the upscale suburbs to the west of the city. Often when I arrive I am the only customer in the shop, and when it is just the three of us—me, Phil, and the Italian, Donnie—Phil moves beyond the comic riffs into stories about the other two kosher butchers in the region: Mel Smolensky and Seymour Levine.
Levine only comes up every now and then. Smolensky, whom he’d once described to me as “an ox in an apron” and another time as “a thud of a man” is the one he loves to tell me about. The plots generally revolve around Smolensky’s monumental stinginess: the time at the wholesale market when he managed to pack five forequarters of beef into his 1972 Cutlass rather than pay for delivery; the time he tried to make a few extra bucks by raising and slaughtering a lamb in his Philadelphia backyard—a stunt that may have worked had one of his daughter’s friends not witnessed Smolensky hanging the little animal from the swing set in the backyard and slitting its neck.
I am so taken with these Smolensky tales that I begin to jot them down as soon as I return to my apartment, sometimes as soon as I am back in my car. I don’t know what I’ll do with the stories, only that I don’t want to forget them. And then, one September afternoon, while trimming the fat from a brisket, Phil tells me the story about Smolensky and the Orthodox widow—the story that sets everything that will happen later in motion.
So, Smolensky has it bad, he begins. Never mind the wife and the four kids, the youngest of which is still studying for his bar mitzvah. Never mind that he sits in the front row at shul every Shabbos, that he carries the Torah around the dimly lit sanctuary each week like he’s cradling a newborn. Never mind anything at all except Marcy Rosenblatt, the doe-eyed Orthodox widow with the impossible cheekbones and the shy, half-smile and the thick dark hair corralled into a ponytail so that Smolensky can gaze not only at the front of her neck but also—when she leans down to check the price on the two-pound packages of ground beef—the back.
The back of a neck. What is the back of a neck to Smolensky? Never in his life has he noticed the back of a neck. But the back of Marcy Rosenblatt’s neck he can’t shut up about. Every time we drive to the wholesale market together I have to hear about the back of that neck: the little layer of goose feather—this is his term, “goose feather”—that remains behind even after the rest of the hairs have been pulled into the ponytail; the crescent of white skin he is amazed to discover between the hairline and the back of her ears. It’s 5:30 in the morning. I haven’t had a cup of coffee yet, and I have to hear about the skin behind Marcy Rosenblatt’s ears.
She’s half his age, still recovering from the loss of a husband, but never mind that too. Smolensky’s desire takes over the controls the moment she walks into his shop. Smolensky’s desire could care less about a dead husband.
Phil pauses and looks around the shop, as if to make sure there are no other customers. He’s been speaking for only a minute, but already it’s clear that we’ve arrived somewhere new.
Don’t get the wrong idea. Smolensky isn’t a momzer. He tries to fight it. For a while he tells himself that the sea of sweat that forms on his palms the very moment Marcy Rosenblatt walks into Smolensky and Sons Kosher means nothing. He tells himself that he’s allergic to something she wears, to her shampoo maybe. How else to explain that this Goliath in an apron, this man I once saw carrying a full sack of potatoes in his teeth, now has to steady himself with a hand on his chopper whenever Marcy Rosenblatt so much as asks whether he’ll have any more lamb chops before Shabbos?
It goes on like this for maybe a month. I figure it will pass. But whatever has come over Smolensky isn’t a little thing you blow off like the layer of dust you find on every counter in his shop. Hurricane winds couldn’t blow off whatever has come over Smolensky.
Phil puts down his knife for a moment and shakes his head, as though the pathos of it all is too much to bear. By this point I am sure that he’s told this story before, that what I am witnessing is not improvisation but a well-rehearsed performance. I wonder how he decides whom to share his stories with, whether he’s chosen me because I am a writer.
So, like I said, Phil continues, Smolensky has it bad, and then, one Friday afternoon, in the middle of the pre-Shabbos rush, it gets much worse. Marcy Rosenblatt walks into his shop, looks up at him with those big eyes, and asks for three pounds of rib-eye. Smolensky, to his own surprise, manages to remain calm. He weighs the rib-eye and wraps it in wax paper as though she’s just another customer. For a moment he thinks he’s made it through. He’s ready to celebrate the very fact that he hasn’t fainted. He’s ready to bentsh Gomel—to recite the little prayer delivered after a near fatal incident.
It’s only after he’s wrapped the rib-eye a second time in a sheet of coarse white paper and taped the package closed that he sees it: his hand. His own hand! His own hand holding a black marker and writing a price atop the package that is 20 percent less than what it should be. This is a man so cheap he would sell his own liver if he could get a mashgiach to deem it kosher, but now he’s giving Marcy Rosenblatt a price on rib-eye that is only slightly more than what he himself paid.
Had it happened only once, maybe he could have excused it as temporary insanity, could have continued to assume, as he first did, that he’d had a minor stroke shortly before writing “$14.35” atop the package. But it happens again. And then again. Twenty percent off becomes 30 percent off. A week later he watches, as bewildered as though he were laying his own little Heschie down on the altar, as he gives her a rack of lamb that is marked down almost 40 percent.
Of course, Marcy Rosenblatt keeps coming back. Who wouldn’t come back when you’re getting three pounds of shoulder roast for under 15 dollars? She’s getting the meat below wholesale. At the prices she’s getting, she could turn around and open her own shop and make a great profit. Smolensky is losing money but what can he do? It’s not him. It’s his hand. His right hand has gone rogue. It’s no longer taking orders from above. The way the hand is carrying on, Smolensky wouldn’t have been shocked had it reached up and slapped him across his own face. And why not? A slap on the face would have been a pleasure compared to writing $15.75 on a package of ground beef that could serve 10. Smolensky is half tempted to cut that son of a bitch hand right off his wrist. He’s got the tools to do it. One hard yank on the chopper with the free hand is all it would take. And should the remaining hand get any ideas, it would be next. A horrific thought, sure, but $11.99 for $24 worth of sausage is also a horrific thought.
Does it help that Marcy Rosenblatt wears only Orthodox attire, that he has never seen her in anything but a long-sleeved white cotton blouse and a long denim skirt? The opposite. Had she walked through the door to Smolensky and Sons half naked like the girls he sees coming in and out of the nail salon next door, Smolensky might never have turned into the walking mound of schmaltz he has become. The clothes are not the solution. The clothes are the problem. The more Marcy Rosenblatt is covered, the more naked she becomes. The less Smolensky sees with his eyes, the more he sees with his mind.
Why should he need to see any more with his eyes? He knows that under those denim skirts there can only be two unblemished thighs, two legs that are every bit as smooth to the touch as the stainless steel blades of his trimming knives. Smolensky doesn’t need Marcy Rosenblatt to remove her square-toed white tennis shoes and ankle socks to know that inside of them are two magnificent feet, to know that, between the heels and the toes, those two feet rise and fall in perfect rainbow arcs—arcs that, as far as Smolensky is concerned, make for a far more convincing sign of God’s covenant than any smattering of colors up in the sky.
Phil has stopped trimming the brisket now and is gazing through the glass storefront. I’m not sure he would have noticed if I had turned around and walked out of the shop.
His wife, his Chava? Of course she knows something isn’t right. How could she not? Smolensky, who has smiled maybe three times since the Eisenhower Administration, is now walking around the house with a look of wonder on his face like he’s just come back from a chat with the burning bush. And what happened to the grunts? Where had Smolensky’s famous grunts gone? Where were those deep guttural noises that would begin somewhere down below and gather more and more tsores on their way up and out. What happened to those grunts, those grunts that could be trigged by as little as Chava asking him to pass the salt or adjust the antenna? What happened to the grunts that had no discernable cause at all, the grunts that would come out of absolutely nowhere, as though Smolensky were some sort of wild beast whose paw has just been ensnared in a steel-toothed trap rather than a 53-year-old father sitting on the velour sofa in his living room among his four now terrified children?
If Smolensky had stopped grunting then something was wrong. If Smolensky had stopped grunting, it was time to panic. If Smolensky…
An old woman with a walker wobbles into the store. When she leaves with her chicken breasts, Phil picks up where he left off without any prompting.
Now, Smolensky might have lost his mind, but some part of the brain is still functioning. At some level he knows that a beauty like Marcy Rosenblatt is not going to fall for a married butcher with a mid-section so full and balloon-like that you half expect it to float away when Smolensky loosens the apron knot behind his back. But the moment she walks through the door again, that balloon of a gut might as well float away. When Marcy Rosenblatt walks into his shop whatever last bit of string that is keeping Smolensky tethered to the earth is sliced straight through. Forget 40 percent. He gives her 50 percent off. He is being driven out of business by his own right hand and there is not a damn thing he can do about it.
And then—Phil allows a dramatic pause to ready me for the blow—and then Marcy Rosenblatt stops coming to Smolensky and Sons Kosher.
Four, five days Smolensky can handle. Even a week later he still has the strength to go through the motions, put a few salamis in the window, soak and salt the deliveries before they go treyf on him. It’s only after 10 full days have passed that I get the hysterical call. He thinks she’s coming to me. You’ll regret that you ever tried to sell kosher meat on Haverford Avenue, he tells me. I’ll beat your price on everything. Your son’s bar mitzvah will be catered by Smolensky and Sons.
He knows I have no children, but I let him get it all out. He goes on like this for 30 minutes. By the end of the call he’s weeping. Smolensky, a man you could slap across the face with a frozen skirt steak three times with before eliciting a response, is now sobbing into the phone like a small child.
There are lots of pretty widows, I tell him the next morning as we drive together to the wholesale market.
Smolensky turns to me, gives me this look that is at once supremely stupid and knowing, like he’s in possession of some great knowledge that has been whispered into his ear by the village idiot. I know where she goes to shul, he says.
Mazel tov. Please keep your eyes on the road.
Good for you. Maybe next you can find out where she gets her hair done.
I’m going, he says. Again with that stupid stare.
To her shul. To talk to her.
I force him to pull over. I remind him that laws have been written specifically to keep people like him away from people like her.
Right away I see that I might as well be speaking to myself, that it would be easier to remove the sciatic nerve from a hindquarter of beef than to talk some sense into this lovesick butcher. After 20 minutes the most I manage is a promise that he’ll do no more than ask her why she stopped coming to his shop.
An ultra-Orthodox man in black robes pushes open the door to Roth’s and orders a half-pound of ground veal. I wait. The store could have been on fire and filling with smoke, and I would have waited.
So, Shabbos comes and he does it; he makes up God knows what excuse for Chava and he goes to her shul, sits down in the third row in his pin-striped polyester suit as though he’s been davening there his whole life. Between the side for the men and the side for the women is moveable lattice wall, so that Smolensky can make out only little glimpses of Marcy Rosenblatt as he mumbles the prayers. But even these little glimpses are too much. He starts to sweat. He loosens his tie. He frees the top button of his shirt and then the one below. It makes no difference. This isn’t sweating. This is flooding. This is Niagara Falls in the third row of Congregation Ohav Zedek.
At least half of the people in this little shul are Smolensky’s customers. So, you can image their confusion. You can imagine they must be wondering not only why their butcher has chosen to invade their close-knit community but also why he is sweating as though he’s just come out of a month in a Russian bathhouse. But what can Smolensky do? As far as he’s concerned, this mechitza, this little wall the Orthodox insist on placing between the men and the women, is every bit as counterproductive as the long sleeves and the skirts; this flimsy bit of lattice work not only fails to stem his desire, it makes it impossible to feel anything other than desire. These divides the great sages, in all their wisdom, have dreamed up, are the greatest aphrodisiacs ever invented.
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife? Fine, fair enough, but then don’t put thy neighbor’s wife on the other side of crosshatched strips of plywood so that every last glimpse of thy neighbor’s wife is a thousand times more tempting than anything Adam and Eve ever came up against in the Garden of Eden. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife? OK. It’s a deal. But then Thou shalt not make someone like Marcy Rosenblatt. Thou shalt let Smolensky have a fighting chance and not give one single woman those eyes and lips.
It’s a miracle the heat of Smolensky’s desire doesn’t cause that wall to burst into flames. It’s a miracle the whole shul isn’t set ablaze. By the time the service is over Smolensky is soaking. Had his head been right, he would have understood that no good could possibly come from approaching Marcy Rosenblatt looking like he’s just taken a fully clothed dip in the mikveh. But if his head had been right Smolensky never would have been in that shul in the first place. So, rather than running out of Congregation Ohav Zedek as fast as possible, he grabs his talis bag and hurries to the men’s room. He removes his shirt and wrings it out over the sink. He smears a handful of liquid soap under each armpit and splashes himself with water from the sink. He takes fistfuls of paper towels from the steel-cased dispenser on the wall and plasters them over his face and across the jungle of hair on his chest and shoulders.
So what if he’s making a mess of the men’s room. So what if Irving Brenner, who also happens to be Smolensky’s accountant, is standing at the adjacent sink gazing at Smolensky—shirtless and covered in towels—like he’s some kind of horrible paper Golem. So what if when Smolensky steps out of the bathroom, hardly any less sweaty than when he stepped in, he is accosted by a doctor in the congregation who is convinced that Smolensky experienced a cardiac event during the service. None of this matters to Smolensky so long as he has the chance to gain his audience with Marcy Rosenblatt. The security guys at Ben Gurion airport couldn’t have prevented him from making his way down the stairs to the basement where, in the glow of the halogen bulbs, the congregants are now attacking a spread of white fish and egg salad as though it has been four years rather than four hours since their last meal.
She’s gone! He’s blown it! What a complete buffoon he was to go to the bathroom first. It is a good thing the doctor is still there because now Smolensky really is going to have that cardiac event. Now Smolensky might as well take the kind doctor up on his offer to dial an ambulance because his heart is about to call it quits for the day, maybe for good.
He turns to leave and there she is, standing by the table with the pitchers of ice water, right behind him the whole time. Her hair is hidden beneath a black scarf. In place of the long sleeves and skirt is a simple gray dress that is cinched at the hips by a black belt. The dress, though far from tight, reveals more of Marcy Rosenblatt’s form than anything Smolensky has seen her in before. Now, a mere 10 feet away, part of him wants only to stand and gaze, to absorb as much of Marcy Rosenblatt as the eyes will allow. But Smolensky is no longer taking chances, not after the scare he’s just had.
I haven’t seen you for a long time, he says.
She looks up at him. He waits, squeezes the talis bag in his left hand, and waits. It’s maybe 10 seconds but it may as well be 10 years.
Finally, he gets it: She doesn’t recognize him without his apron and white paper cap.
It’s me. Smolensky. The butcher.
Ah, yes. The butcher.
You don’t come to my store any longer. It is not exactly the line Smolensky and I have rehearsed but it’s close enough.
What is going through her head as she looks at this sweating beast, this wet dog in his undersized polyester suit, Smolensky can’t know. All Smolensky will ever know is what she says: I haven’t been hungry.
That’s it. I haven’t been hungry.
Smolensky takes a breath—the first one he’s taken in the last minute. He tries to steady himself on the table and almost knocks the whole thing over, water pitchers and all.
Phil pauses again. I sense that he doesn’t want the story to end any more than I do. This is how he does it, I think. This is how he manages to get through the long days, the endless hours of carving and chopping and grinding. He dreams. He makes up stories about the things and people that interest him. He spends all day writing, only without pen or paper.
For what happens next I blame myself, Phil goes on. I should have never let him go to Marcy Rosenblatt’s shul alone. Hand I been there maybe I could have stopped it, maybe I could have blocked his path, held his arm down by his side.
Or maybe there was no stopping him? Maybe this thing has to play itself out? Maybe it has to be that the same hand that has already betrayed him so many times before now disappears into his talis bag and reappears with that prime rib roast. Maybe it has to be that Smolensky lifts that prime rib roast before her eyes and mutters the single syllable that has never before—or since—escaped his lips: Free.
Not even Smolensky can miss the look on Marcy Rosenblatt’s face as he stands there with an outstretched arm. It is the only sort of look you can have when you’ve just been accosted by a sopping wet man waving two-pounds of prime rib roast in your face. Smolensky is lucky she doesn’t scream for help. Smolensky is lucky she doesn’t run to a phone and dial 9-1-1.
When it is clear there is no way to undo what he has just done, Smolensky deposits the meat back into his talis bag and nods, as though nothing unusual has just taken place. Then he turns and walks up the stairs and out of the shul. How he makes it home not even he knows. It’s all a fog from the moment she turns away from that sacrifice of free flesh Smolensky had been prepared to make in the basement of Congregation Ohav Zedek.
I am debating whether to clap when he starts again.
“Now, you’d think he’s cured at this point. You’d think that look of horror she gave him would have been enough to forever eradicate from his mind the notion that a woman like that could ever fall for a man like him. But no. Whatever Smolensky is suffering from can’t be cured with a single pill. This isn’t love sickness. This is a full-blown disease. This is stage-four, metastatic love. And so when he opens his shop the next Monday morning, he still thinks maybe she’ll come back, that she’ll have come to appreciate that a free prime rib roast is a free prime rib roast regardless of the hand that offers it.
That he will never again have the opportunity to give Marcy Rosenblatt below-wholesale discounts on his meat doesn’t fully sink in until the two Orthodox tough guys show up later that afternoon and threaten to hang him from one of the meat hooks in the back of the shop if he ever comes within a mile of her.
Phil shakes his head again and looks up at me. I haven’t been hungry. The woman is a widow less than two years, but Smolensky never once considers the sadness that must have been in her eyes when she spoke those four words.
I wait a moment to make sure he is done. “Come to my next writing workshop,” I say.
I don’t expect him to show. He still seems unsure when I stop by a few days later with copies of the stories we’ll be discussing at my next class. I remind him that, at least until it’s his turn to submit a story, he doesn’t have to do anything more than sit and listen. He reminds me that his higher education consists of a few classes at the Newark branch of Rutgers University, that Donnie can only be left in charge of the shop for so long.
But the following Tuesday, there he is, standing in the doorway of Fisher-Bennett Hall, Room 16, in cap-toed oxfords and a maroon cardigan buttoned almost to the collar of the dress shirt beneath. Most of the students have already taken their seats. It’s 40 degrees outside but half of them are wearing T-shirts. When they notice Phil, they turn to me, presumably wondering why a man who looks like he’s just stepped out of a 1950’s television program is now walking into their classroom.
I stand up and greet him at the door. He smells like Aqua Velva. “This is Phil Roth,” I say. “He’s a local butcher. He’ll be joining our class”
First silence, then laughter—not little chuckles, but deep, sustained heaves of amusement. “No, I mean it.” More laughter. A frat boy from Texas slaps the table with his palm.
“I should have brought my cleaver,” Phil says.
The students fall quiet at this. I lead Phil to a seat between a Japanese exchange student who is still perfecting his English and a girl from California who writes stories about the behind-the-scenes drama of her high-school lacrosse team. Seeing him squeezed among the students in his cardigan, I have a moment of doubt, a moment when I appreciate for the first—and only—time that I’ve asked him to do something difficult.
We start with a story by Melissa Rydner, a senior who is into punk rock and happens to be the best writer in the class. Last week Melissa’s close-cropped hair was pink. Today it’s a shimmering green-blue—the color of the ocean at an island resort—and spiked in a straight line down the center of her head. Around her neck is what appears, to me, at least, to be a dog collar.
The story is about a girl and her boyfriend who are touring Venezuela by van when they hit a poor farmer selling fruit on the side of the road. The girl is about to jump out of the van to help the farmer when the boyfriend speeds away. The girl is horrified. Her boyfriend, the amazingly sweet guy she’s lived with for the last year, the guy who refuses to taste a single morsel of food that can be traced back to a living creature, is now leaving a man to die. The story ends with the girl, still stunned and disgusted, climbing on top of her boyfriend in their tent that night.
That Melissa’s work is more sophisticated than most undergraduate fiction doesn’t make the response any more forgiving. The students are in agreement that the boyfriend who speeds away is too awful to be convincing. I add that it is hard to believe that the girl in the story could be so turned on by such a monstrous act.
Phil says nothing during the discussion. When we have run out of things to criticize, I ask if there is anything he wants to add.
He lets the silence take a hold for a moment. “And I thought being a butcher was brutal.”
I wait for the laughs to quiet down. The same shtick I enjoy so much in his shop feels less funny in my class. “But what do you think of the story?”
Again, he takes his time before responding.
“It’s OK,” Melissa says. “Whatever you’re going to say, I’ve said worse.” It’s true. Only the week before Melissa had told the lacrosse player that she’d needed drugs to make it to the end of her story.
“I think it doesn’t matter what I think,” Phil pauses, finds Melissa’s eyes. “But, if you really want to know, I thought it was fantastic.”
“Yes,” I say, “Good. But what makes it fantastic?”
“Who knows? What makes it fantastic is that I loved reading it.” Phil looks down at the story, then turns to the students. “They didn’t teach this one in butcher school. ”
They love him.
“There are no wrong answers,” I say. I have no idea why I’m giving him such a hard time.
“OK, well, I heard a few of you say that you don’t believe people would act this way. Take it from an old man: Good and bad mix pretty easily in a person—no need to stir.”
“What else?” I sense he is starting to warm up, that he is now going through the thawing process I observed in his shop that first day.
“The thing about people,” he goes on, “is that they have an unfortunate tendency to be complicated. The girl is not entirely wrong about her boyfriend. He is sweet, but he’s also not sweet. That’s why I believe him. It’s hard enough to get ourselves right. Getting someone else right?”—Phil unleashes the full New Jersey accent for the first time since I’d met him—“Fuggedabouit.”
We fall into a routine. On Thursdays I drop off the stories we’ll be discussing in class and on Tuesdays he arrives at Fisher-Bennett Hall with a few wonderful insights on the stories. He never adopts the jargon the students and I use to discuss the stories—no talk of narrative arcs or imagery, hardly even a mention of plot—and yet the natural talent is impossible to miss.
He even makes friends. Often when I leave he is still sitting and chatting with Melissa Rydner, the punk girl whose story he had liked so much. After one class I hear Melissa tell Phil that he would “make a great punk,” an observation he seems to love. When he is done laughing, he turns back to her. “You’d make a great ritual slaughterer,” he says.
I wonder if he is flirting but what difference does it make? Melissa Rydner is a 21-year-old girl who cannot succeed in making herself unattractive even with blue hair and a dog collar around her neck. She isn’t about to jump into bed with an old butcher, no matter how brilliant he might be. Nor does Phil, for all the exhibitionism of his routines, strike me as the type to make a move. Almost as surprising as how effortlessly he transforms into an entertainer is how effortlessly he slips back into the taciturn, humble butcher I encountered the first time I stepped into Roth’s Kosher.
Let him flirt, I tell myself. It’s his writing rather than his new friendships that I’m interested in. As I’d listened to the story of Smolensky and the widow, I’d come to a realization: That a kosher butcher on Haverford Avenue was composing stories in his head that were far better than anything in my novel was as good a sign as any that I wasn’t destined for literary greatness. But, though I never would have said it aloud, I already saw that Phil the butcher offered another way forward: If I wasn’t going to be the Kafka, I could be the next best thing, the Max Brod, the discoverer, the man who saw a genius where others saw a sad assessor of insurance claims.
Kafka. It was almost too perfect. Kafka’s grandfather had been a kosher butcher; and, though Phil’s story couldn’t have been more stylistically different from a Kafka nightmare, wasn’t there something Kafkaesque in Smolensky’s desperate hopefulness? Wasn’t Smolensky’s inability to grasp the impossibility of his quest not all that different from K’s maddening inability to see that he will never obtain the clarity he seeks? Weren’t they both pointing to the inevitability of defeat, to our refusal to internalize defeat until long after it has turned comic? I knew I was getting ahead of myself, knew that one little story recited aloud in a butcher shop does not a Kafka make. But, then, Phil had composed the Smolensky story in his head. Who knew what he might be capable of if he sat down at a typewriter? Who knew what was possible if he spent all day cleaving sentences rather than carcasses?
The problem—it becomes more apparent each day—is that Phil has another thing in common with Kafka: a remarkable reluctance to release his stories into the world. Each time I ask him if he is ready to share his own work with the class, he tightens his mouth and shoos away the idea with a single swipe of his hand.
I tell him that he can talk a story into a tape recorder, that I will transcribe it for him. I tell him that once he starts publishing there will be some money in it for him, maybe even—perhaps, it’s possible—a lot of money. I tell him plenty of other things too, but what I tell him doesn’t matter. As soon as the words are out of my mouth they are dismissed again by that swipe of his hand—a hand I come to see as every bit as infuriating and self-destructive as the hand of Smolensky; a hand that, by the time it has traveled its downward arc and come to rest again at his side, leaves me feeling as though it has batted down not only his possibilities but also my own.
That Melissa might be the one to convince him to write down a story only occurs to me during our penultimate class, when, in the middle of my extended riff on the distinction between likable and sympathetic characters, I spot her passing Phil a note.
After class I ask Melissa to join me in my office on the third floor, and as we ascend the marble stairs—the clomping of Melissa’s black Dr. Martens boots echoing through the English Department as we go—I feel hopeful for the first time in weeks.
“Am I in trouble?” Melissa asks. Her hair is now fire-engine red, still close-cropped save for the staggered bangs that fall over her left eye.
I close the door behind us, open a folding metal chair for Melissa. “Of course you’re not in trouble.” It’s my calmest, most reassuring voice, but I see she’s not buying it, that she thinks I have brought her into my office to levy some great accusation.
“Is this about the note?”
“The note? Don’t be silly.” My office is not much bigger than a walk-in closet. When I sit down across from Melissa, our knees almost touch. “How are your revisions coming along?”
“Fine,” she says, making it perfectly clear, with her tone, that she cannot wait to leave, that she finds the prospect of sitting with me in this very small room about as pleasant as going in for a root canal.
“I love how your story ends,” I say. “I was wrong about the scene in the tent. The more I think about it, the more I believe it.”
“Thanks.” She sweeps her bangs away from her eye, continues to look at me as though I’ve just sat her down for a police interrogation. “Is there a reason I’m here?”
There is no bullshitting her. “I’ve noticed you’ve become friends with Phil,” I say.
I mean nothing by it, am trying only to find a way into a conversation about Phil’s writing, but Melissa—a girl as unflappable as any student I have ever taught—is now turning the color of her hair.
“Melissa? Is everything OK?” I ask, even though I am the one who now feels as though it is impossible to breathe.
“Everything is fine.”
“Is there something I need to know about, Melissa?”
“No, there is nothing you need to know about.”
“If something is going on between you and Phil, you can tell me. Because I noticed that you turned red when I said…”
“There is nothing going on between us”—she has regained her composure, looks pissed now—“and, frankly, it would be none of your business if something were going on.”
“He could be your father, Melissa.”
I know right away that I’ve said the wrong thing, knew it, maybe, even before I’d said it. Every bit of Melissa’s face is now telling me to go fuck myself. “What I am trying to say is that it would be inappropriate, Melissa.”
“So what if it’s appropriate? Who said I have to be appropriate?”
“Who says you have to be appropriate?” (The repeating of a question as a rhetorical device had been near the top of the list of grievances Amy had cited before leaving.) “I say it. I say that you have to be appropriate.”
Melissa lifts her backpack, makes her way to the door.
“Look, all I ask is that you promise to tell me if something should ever happen between the two of you.”
“You’re joking, right?”
“No, Melissa, I am not joking. I want to know what I’m going to say to your parents should I receive a hysterical phone call one night. I want to know—once your parents have spoken with your academic adviser and he has called me into his office—how I am going to explain my role in this.”
Now, finally—I’m amazed it took so long—it happens: First the fist is raised so that the back of Melissa’s hand is level with my nose, and then, slowly, theatrically, as though life itself is moving in slow motion, her middle finger is unfurled until it is standing stiff and proud above three bowing knuckles.
But she is already hurrying down the hall.
That whatever is going on between Phil and Melissa is not, in fact, any of my business never once occurs to me that evening as I sit at my desk and compose what I am going to say to Phil. Nor do I stop to consider why the mere possibility of their involvement hits me with so much force. It does not cross my mind that my loneliness and frustration with my work are fueling my reaction, that my unhappiness, having run out of room in me, may now be manifesting itself as a desire to make everyone else unhappy.
Instead of thinking, I write a letter to Phil. I work for hours, and when I am done, I have composed a small masterpiece of self-righteousness—1,500 words of unrefined indignation that include both a reminder that I have placed a great deal of trust in him by inviting him into my classroom and my deep-felt concern about what might become of his business should rumors of a scandalous relationship ever reach the ears of his faith-adhering customers.
Because I do not want to appear the least bit unhinged when I confront him, I decide I will wait to deliver my speech until the following Thursday, my regularly scheduled time to drop off the stories. It is a reasonable decision—perhaps the only reasonable decision I make that entire night—which is why I am disappointed to find myself speeding to Roth’s Kosher at 7:30 the following morning. The shop isn’t open yet but when I peer through the window—already dressed with a shoulder roast, $4.99/lb.—I see Phil standing by the grinder placing handfuls of ground beef onto Styrofoam trays.
“It’s important that you understand that I am not making any accusations.” This is how I greet him as he opens the door.
“Good,” he says. “Neither am I.” He is wearing his apron but has not yet donned the white paper cap. He shows not even the slightest sign of being alarmed by my arrival, almost an hour-and-a-half before the shop opens.
“I know that Melissa is a very attractive young woman. And I know that you two have developed a special friendship. I also know that you would never become romantically involved with one of my students. So, what I am saying to you now I am saying only because I want to make it perfectly clear that …”
“She blew me.”
“What? What are you talking about?”
“She blew me. Last week.” His eyes are full of wonder, as though he himself cannot believe his good fortune.
“What do you mean she blew you? Who blew you?”
“Melissa. She blew me. Right in your classroom.”
“In my classroom? Are you fucking kidding me? You got a blow job in my classroom?”
He nods, shifts his eyes from me to the window, on the other side of which a line of traffic is now forming on Haverford Avenue. “I was as surprised as you are. I still am.”
“What the hell did you do to her?” I am shouting now. Donnie appears from the back of the shop, his apron splattered with blood, and asks if there’s a problem.
Phil tells him that everything is OK, waits until he goes back to work. “We were sitting there talking after your class, just making small talk like all of the other times, and then she asks what I’m doing there, why I’m in the class. I’d been waiting for someone to ask, but this is the first time it happens.”
“And then you whip it out? The girl asks you a perfectly reasonable question about why a kosher butcher is critiquing her prose and you take this as an invitation to pull your dick out?”
He shuts me up with a narrowing of his eyes. “I tell her the truth—that you asked me to come after hearing the story about Smolensky and the widow. And then she wants to hear it too. I say that I have to get back to my shop, but she insists, begins to make these big ‘pretty please’ eyes at me as though her whole life depends on hearing my little story.”
“And so you tell her the story and she says ‘Bravo!’ and gets down on her knees? Is that what you expect me to believe? Is that the story I should give the dean of student life at Penn?”
“No. She tells me to lie down on the table. I look at her like she’s a meshuggener. I have no idea what she’s getting at. For all I know she’s going to take my wallet and make a run for it. For all I know she’s going to choke me with one of her dog collars. But she’s insisting, and what can I do? You don’t argue with eyes like hers. ‘Just lie down,’ she keeps saying, and so I climb onto the table. I’m genuinely scared at this point. I ask her if I should close my eyes and she says that’s up to me. In the end I leave them open, and so I see that she is now also on the table, only on her hands and knees, and that she is crawling over my legs like a cat. Even at this point I’m not sure what is taking place. I don’t know if I should be excited or screaming for help.”
“ ‘I’ve always wanted to do this.’ That’s the only thing she says as she reaches for my belt and …”
We both fall silent now, and here, unexpectedly, despite my best efforts, my indignation leaves me. “Would you please stop looking so amazed,” I say. “This isn’t Newark in the 1940s.”
“Nobody told me.”
“Nobody told you that you could get a blow job in 1984?”
“Nobody told me there’s such a thing as sex without struggle. Nobody told me that nowadays when you tell a story the response is not a polite applause or a congratulatory pat on the back but a tug on your zipper.”
“Times have changed while you’ve been chopping up kosher meat,” I say. “Blow jobs no longer come at such a premium. ”
“Nobody told me.”
When I think back on this period, it’s this moment that comes to me first: the two of us standing together by the door of his shop; me starting to breathe again, starting to remember that my brilliant butcher—my Kafka-in-training —also happens to be a human being. And Phil, right next to me but not with me at all, gazing beyond the shoulder roast in the window and out onto Haverford Avenue, the solemnity in his eyes undermined only by the slightest hint of a smile at the edges of his mouth.
The first story collection—The Butcher of Desire—comes out a little more than a year later. Two years after that comes the first novel—about a butcher who is befriended by a professor. It is so good that I am only briefly enraged upon discovering that I have been reimagined as a compulsive masturbator who is as interested in the butcher for his ready supply of raw livers as for his literary gifts. In interviews, I laugh off the Brod comparisons, before accepting that, yes, in fact, there may be some parallels.
All these years later, the strange part is not that it all played out as it did, but that I ever doubted that it would. Phil Roth never writing great books? Almost impossible to imagine.
Sign Up for special curated mailings of the best longform content from Tablet Magazine.