Talking to The Paris Review in the 1980s, Philip Roth explained a little about how his most recent novel, The Anatomy Lesson, had come to include a long section where the protagonist, Nathan Zuckerman, who has been dreaming of going to medical school and helping people, pretends to be a pornographer:
There had to be willed extremism at either end of the moral spectrum, each of his escape-dreams of self-transformation subverting the meaning and mocking the intention of the other. If he had gone off solely to become a doctor, driven only by that high moral ardor, or, if he had just gone around impersonating a pornographer, spewing only that anarchic and alienating rage, he wouldn’t have been my man. He has two dominant modes: his mode of self-abnegation, and his fuck-’em mode. You want a bad Jewish boy, that’s what you’re going to get.
That split—which Roth had already apotheosized, a decade earlier, in Portnoy’s Complaint—is the essence of the “bad Jewish boy.” But what do you call the Jewish boy whose only mode is “anarchic and alienating rage,” who finds himself locked into “fuck-‘em mode” every minute of every day?
Al Goldstein. Literally: the diatribe that Zuckerman spews when impersonating a pornographer is lifted directly from notes Roth took while shadowing Goldstein at Screw—and it captures Goldstein’s voice better than his mostly shoddy autobiography, I, Goldstein. Even without having read any of that, it should be clear if you’ve ever seen an issue of Goldstein’s magazine, Screw, or caught an episode of his cable TV show, Midnight Blue, that he wasn’t conflicted: he was furious, always.
He was id without boundary, obscenity without redeeming value. There will always be Jews breaking rules, crossing lines, pissing people off—but, learning this morning that Goldstein is gone, I’m wondering if there will ever be another who does so quite as free from any pretension to a higher motive.
Related: My Son, the Pornographer
Josh Lambert (@joshnlambert), a Tablet Magazine contributing editor and comedy columnist, is the academic director of the Yiddish Book Center, Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author most recently ofUnclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture.