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A Few Good Roths

People who are better than Philip

Liel Leibovitz
September 17, 2013
Singer David Lee Roth of Van Halen on February 8, 2012. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
Singer David Lee Roth of Van Halen on February 8, 2012. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Did I ever tell you how much I dislike Philip Roth’s books? I did, on more than one occasion, and want no more of it: when it comes to ranting about Roth, I’m as depleted of life force as an octogenarian novelist slouching into retirement. But seeing the man emerge as the only author, living or otherwise, to pluck more than one spot on our list of 101 Great Jewish Books aggravated my dormant dislike. Some sort of response, I felt, was in order. Rather than tediously attempt another essay on Roth’s failings, I’d like to offer a list of American artists who are better than Philip Roth at doing what Philip Roth does. All of them, coincidentally, are also named Roth.

If you like the sweeping vistas of American history, which Philip Roth has attempted to portray in novels such as American Pastoral, I recommend the work of screenwriter Eric Roth, whose Forrest Gump remains a far more astutely observed meditation on America’s moral and political fiber than anything the other Roth has ever written.

If you like the male libido in its unbridled form—and if you don’t, you are no fan of Philip Roth’s—you’ll have more fun with David Lee Roth, who is like a Portnoy with enough balls to get off the therapist’s couch and actually live out his life of unmitigated id.

If you like the piercing sensation of contemplating one’s mortality, a subject which Philip Roth has explored in his last several novels, making it all too clear that his self-centered simplicity was a very blunt tool with which to dissect the meaning of life, check out Eli Roth, whose movies—Hostel, say, or Cabin Fever—offer less pretentious and more visceral meditations on the same theme.

If you like incessant and thinly veiled autobiographical exploration, a trick Philip Roth had mastered by My Life as a Man and of which he never tired, give Asher Roth a listen. He’s a middle-class white rapper rapping about middle-class white life in songs with titles like “I Love College” and with lyrics like “I can get pizza a dollar a slice.” A swaggering cocksman with nothing but his urges on his mind, he’s probably the closest in spirit to the Master.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.