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Philip Roth and American Manhood

The late writer, who would have been 87 this week, was a light in the dark for one Cuban American boy

Alex Perez
March 17, 2020
Bob Peterson/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images
Bob Peterson/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images
Bob Peterson/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images
Bob Peterson/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images

As a first-generation American of Cuban descent, people are always surprised, if not dismayed, when they find out that my personal literary canon consists of the following writers: Roth, Carver, Shepard, Miller, Salinger, Hannah. Whenever I drop one of these names to a fellow literary citizen, I’m met with a pained look, not unlike that of a puppy whose biscuit has just been snatched. The look, of course, says: How can you, a Cuban American from Miami—a child of exiles!—read those writers? Don’t you know what they stand for? Didn’t you get the memo that we’re not supposed to bring up their names in polite company anymore?

To those who’ve looked at me as I’ve committed an atrocity by praising Henry Miller, let me say: I know that my favorite writers are white males. I know that no one, especially not a Cuban American person of color, is supposed to read them anymore. I know that they must be ridiculed and replaced and hopefully one day forgotten and relegated to the bargain bin for the crimes of white men throughout recorded history. I know, I know, I know. I got the memo. I read the think pieces. I’ve even skimmed through some of the books of the new woke canon in hopes that the politically correct, intersectional writers would teach me how to be a proper person with the proper beliefs. And yet, I still can’t get enough of those pesky, problematic white dudes.

So how did it happen? How did a kid from a Spanish-speaking family of blue-collar nonreaders come across Philip Roth and Raymond Carver? What happened is what happens to all readers: The right book finds its way into your hands at the right time. The book that was written specifically for you. For me: Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth.

I don’t remember how I found Roth’s debut, if it was gifted to me by one of the bookish nerds I was secretly hanging out with during my high school jock days, but it was the first book that spoke to me and helped me understand who I was: an introspective young man who hadn’t yet accepted that the life of the mind, and not baseball, was his true calling. This might not seem like a serious predicament worthy of causing a crisis of identity, but to grow up a Cuban American kid in Miami is to be deeply inculcated in the ways of the American pastime. You will play baseball and you will play it for as long as you are good enough to play it, and if you even consider quitting, you risk forfeiting your manhood. At the time, I’d entertained the possibility of considering quitting, but my identity, as well as my entire life leading up to that point revolved around baseball, so it was inconceivable to me that I’d be able to hang it up. Without baseball, I knew, I wouldn’t feel like a man, and so my first crisis of manhood was born.

The outcasts and the nerds and the social pariahs had no other option than to embrace Vonnegut and Huxley, but why was I, a jock who dated cheerleaders and came from a long line of macho Cuban men, reading quiet, domestic short stories taking place in sleepy Midwestern towns? What the hell was wrong with me? Why was I suffering from the ennui and malaise that was only supposed to afflict the pasty, bespectacled, and forlorn? I didn’t look like a freak, and yet here I was drawn to the literature of the freaks and the downtrodden, which could only mean one thing: I was a freak. I was only pretending to fit in with the jocks and had not accepted that my interests and sensibilities were those of a budding intellectual. I was not yet aware that a man could contain multitudes—that would come later. I was a fractured island of a boy, lost and confused and between identities, searching for meaning and answers and understanding, which is to say that I was ripe for the picking and could’ve very easily gone the way of male desolation if it wasn’t for Roth’s insight.

Like Neil Klugman, the young Jewish American narrator of Roth’s masterful novella, I wanted nothing more than to be understood by those closest to me, and if they didn’t care, or were unable to, then I needed to rage and get away from them and find those who understood me in all my perceived brilliance and grandeur. For the first time in my life, a plight similar to my own, that of a young man who considers himself an outsider in his own backyard, was laid out for me. Unlike Neil, I wasn’t infatuated with an upper-class girl above my station, but we both wanted—needed—to get out of our current situations in the hope of creating lives in which we were the protagonists. I felt constrained by familial expectations and the cultural forces of my Cuban American community. Quitting baseball, it seemed, would liberate me from the shackles of my personal history just as Neil hoped hooking up with the beautiful Brenda Patimkin would do for him.

I never saw Neil as a Jewish young man, in much the same way that I didn’t identify as Cuban American, or even American, for that matter. To be a man, to be a singular agent in full control of one’s life, just like Neil, and so many other Roth characters desired, was what I was looking for.

The woke literati have trouble understanding how a Cuban American whose first language is Spanish can feel a deep kinship with writers like Richard Ford and Barry Hannah, a pair of Southerners who look absolutely nothing like me and certainly don’t sound like me, because they can’t comprehend that the Southern male experience and the Hispanic male experience—as well as most other male experiences—are more alike than not. I read Roth and Carver and the rest of the problematic male crew because, above all other contemporary classifications, I identify as a man. The fact that I was born to Cuban parents and live in a predominately Hispanic community has always been secondary to my maleness, which is why I so strongly connected and continue to connect with unabashedly masculine writers who tackle classically heterosexual male concerns. Questions of creed or color were never at the forefront for me, because to be a young man, for better or worse, is to be ruled by your manhood, which is why my main concerns as a reader and a writer have always been boyhood and manhood and all the permutations in between.

It is this unabashed masculinity, and not whiteness, that my woke-reader friends find repellent, which explains their disgust at the mere mention of any of the great masculine writers. In their eyes, it is a great sin, no doubt, to be white, but to be a traditionally masculine man has seemingly trumped even whiteness as America’s greater cultural sickness. A white person afflicted by their terrible, repellent whiteness might possibly even be rehabilitated, but a masculine young man, irrespective of race, is inherently toxic.

Our experts and tastemakers seem to think that the attempted eradication of traditional masculinity will make for a healthier society—it won’t—but what happens to the young men who, instead of transcending their manhood, choose to understand it in the hope of harnessing its great potential? In the past, these young men had access to an entire canon of masculine literature, but as these books are increasingly replaced by woke contemporary works that don’t speak to male experiences, they will dig deeper into the male desolation that sent them hurtling toward books in the first place. Before I discovered Roth and the rest of the crew, I was entering that male headspace so often feared and misunderstood by the culture. Like most adolescent boys triggered by hormonal madness and that special brand of alienation only encountered during one’s teenage years, I was growing angry. To be a 16-year-old boy is to be angry and horny and sometimes even a danger to others, and it is out of this predicament that male desolation stems. You are so, so angry, and most of the time, you have no idea where this rage is coming from, only that it is nearly all-encompassing and perpetually simmering in that confusing netherworld between boyhood and manhood, in which one is either debilitated by rage or despair. I would have never considered violence or self harm, as my desolation usually rendered me inert and weepy, but like so many young men before me, I was beginning to give myself over to it.

I was heading down this path, not really a jock and not really a nerd, a perpetually stewing young man in the middle, a frayed identity that made it seem as if I had no identity at all. But when I encountered Goodbye, Columbus and Neil Klugman, a boy who was too Jewish and not Jewish enough, a boy who fiercely loved his family yet wanted to rise above them and create a singular identity for himself, everything began to make more sense. After discovering Roth and the rest of the boys of the masculine canon, I knew that oftentimes, if not all the time, the male condition is inherently fractured and paradoxical. You’re full of love and full of rage, often at the same time. You’re insanely confident, ready to conquer yourself and the world and convinced that your crush is going to come along for the ride, and then the very next second, a sweeping insecurity, not unlike some poltergeist of shame, takes hold of you. To be a man is to live with these contradictory impulses and understand that who you are is determined by how you deal with this constant internal battle. Are young men supposed to magically transmute their ever-present feelings of desolation and alienation without any assistance from the men who came before them unless those men are approved of and sanctioned by our officially feminized girl-power institutions?

The great danger of shipping the great masculine writers to the cultural wasteland is that intellectual young men in search of answers will seek out far more dangerous writers and ideologies online, as I surely would’ve done if it wasn’t for Philip Roth and the literary landscape he granted me access to. I would like to think that I wouldn’t have gone down the road so many young men are going down these days, but in all honesty, during the peak of my baseball-induced instability, it would’ve probably only taken a slight push for me to have embraced some of the more dangerous elements of masculinity being peddled on Twitter and YouTube. The denigration of traditional manhood, ironically, will create a far more intersectional toxic masculinity, as the boys who don’t emasculate will set aside superficial differences such as skin color or country of origin and band together as alienated young men.

To most, the questions of manhood truly have nothing to do with race, which is why it isn’t surprising that most online male spaces, outside of fringe white supremacist sites, are truly multicultural. For me, it was incidental that the writers I read were white, as it barely even registered that John Updike or John Cheever were Northeastern men wearing tweed jackets and sipping scotch. What registered and what mattered was that they were tackling the elemental essence of heterosexual male sexuality, and its attendant problems, as the main driving force in a man’s life. This understanding, which none of my coaches or peers could’ve imparted, as they were surely battling their own forms of male desolation, was the beginning of the end of my baseball career. I wouldn’t quit immediately—that would take another couple of years and many more books—but the understanding that personal existential struggle was intrinsic to the life of a man, made it that much easier, and not a point of resentment or rage, when it was finally time to put away the glove and the bat for good.

Bringing it back to Roth, there is no greater example in literature of a man fighting his sexuality and manhood than Portnoy’s Complaint, in which Alexander Portnoy recounts his lifelong battle with his insatiable libido. He wants to fuck anything and everything, a beast possessed by a ravenous penis, and yet Portnoy wants to be released of this sexual euphoria once and for all. Portnoy’s Complaint, in which Alexander Portnoy, the epitome of male desolation, is alienated from his very own body, is one of the great works of masculine literature because in its depravity and absurdity, it exorcises the young man who might feel trapped and beholden by the demonic power of teenage horniness.

Two decades after completing the sexually frenzied Portnoy’s Complaint, a tempered and middle-aged Roth would write Patrimony, a transcendentally tender account of his father’s life and death. If Roth exposes his sexual neuroses in Portnoy’s Complaint, in Patrimony he did away with the rambunctious literary arsonist persona of his earlier work and performs the far more difficult task of soberly paying homage to his father while also disentangling the myth from the man.

These two very powerful yet divergent books, one bawdy and often repellent, and the other, a beautiful tale of fatherly love and familial obligation, are written by two different men, even though their author is the one and only Philip Roth. The Philip Roth of Portnoy’s Complaint is the real Philip Roth, and so is the Philip Roth of Patrimony. In reading these books, as well as others by the great masculine writers, young men will be given a glimpse into the dichotomous and oftentimes contradictory nature of manhood, and, in turn, will be posed the most important question of their lives up until that point: Will they be able to triumph and overcome in spite of themselves?

Alex Perez is a writer from Miami. Follow him on Twitter @Perez_Writes.