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ZUCKERMAN FOUND

I’m stalking Philip Roth. O.K., “stalking” overstates it – I haven’t crosshaired him through a scope – but I’m definitely creeping and staring, prowling like a borderline case with a hunting wound. Since I spotted America’s Greatest Living ex-Novelist crossing Seventy-ninth Street his scent has led me on a bloodhound’s sniff around the Upper West Side. Roth has announced that he’s done writing books, kaput after more than thirty volumes, and I feel like I’m shadowing Babe Ruth to Cooperstown, though, astonishingly, it’s a private parade among passersby latched to tiny screens. On Eighty-sixth Street, a bundled elderly couple whispered recognition, but that’s been the extent of it on busy sidewalks in the exposure of a bright Sunday. Philip Roth, invisible?

Roth stops at a red light, and I hang back. I’m desperate to figure out what I’m going to say if I step up the pace. I’m also confused about where we’re going. It’s brunch time, and we just moseyed past Barney Greengrass. I’ve got a whitefish sit-down on the brain; Roth could salt his arteries into rebar with herring if he could still get us a booth. We’re so close together, now, if he were listening, the Bard of Newark could hear the gears turning in my head.   

I lived in the building next to Roth’s when I first moved to New York in the early nineties and had two run-ins that confirmed I’d arrived in Mecca – or hell – for fashioning the writer’s life. Walking my roommate’s nutty terrier on an inviting day like today, Roth and I exited our front doors simultaneously and crossed on the sidewalk. Splendidly dressed in a pressed tan suit and patterned tie, he looked right through me and the dog with the bloodless glare I knew from his book jackets. A heavenly welcome for an acolyte. I’ve read everything you’ve written, I was primed to blurt, or, more nakedly, Here I am! Fortunately for both of us, Roth’s Hebrew fright mask cooled my hysteria. We passed again a week later, and I was iced by the same freezeout – the tailored suit, the bald eagle death stare, the degrading silence. Where else but New York City could this happen, I gushed after Roth strode off to vaporize other wannabes. This caliber of humiliation would not have been available if I’d stayed in New Jersey.

Roth walks south on Amsterdam without hesitation, but at a more Floridian pace than when he last shunned me. He’s eighty, so the shuffle is understandable but a jolt to see in the flesh. Much has changed in the years between my Roth sightings. Mailer, Vonnegut, Heller and so many other wooly mammoths have departed the city for eternity. The final claim on the Age When Writers Roamed New York may reside in the living legend wearing the suede coat who’s passing a conga line of outdoor cafes without turning a head. Not a single shout for the author who made liver a sex partner? It’s like watching the Stones play “Satisfaction” to an empty house. Yes, I’m aware of the studies documenting the historic plunge in the number of Americans who read serious literature, and Roth himself has doomed literary fiction to fall into a cultural sinkhole, perhaps imminently with his retirement. But, what I’m after can hardly be called cerebral. This hunt is an act of aspiration, ambition, predation, kinship, the animal instincts that brought literary carnivores like Roth to the big city, where they twinkled under the lights and made spectacles of themselves in public and inspired rubes like me to follow their path to Gomorrah.

I understand, now, what has led me on this Bataan march today. This isn’t stalking. Call it literary reputation management for the City of New York. The last shot of recognition before we become Houston. Sure, a bunch of writers named Jonathan have colonized Brooklyn, but they live with the sobriety of ornithologists. Would I really have immigrated from the sticks to emulate guys whose idea of a wild time is playing speed backgammon?

The bacon-infused-maple-syrup crowd I see in the cafes doesn’t jump at Roth, once notorious as the Enemy of the Jews. Other than Snooki, what writer in America today is an enemy of anyone? And she mixes it up at the Jersey Shore!

We’ve circled back to Roth’s block, and I can’t walk any slower without stopping dead. If this is the end, I won’t let it go without a proper bloodletting. The cars are moving fast up the avenue. Roth waits at the corner crosswalk, and we’re shoulder to shoulder, standing alone on the curb cutout.

“Hello, it’s good to see you again,” I say and work up a dumb smile.

Roth shoots me the chilling glare, a man still in full possession of his awesome and terrifying faculties. He wants no part of me, of this; he never has. Time, which can be a heartless companion, hasn’t diminished his blinding presence. So, in the moments before the light will change and we leave as ghosts, I imagine the conversation I came for, searching for Roth’s substratum like Zuckerman did to the Swede in American Pastoral, to try and learn what happened.

“I’ve always admired your writing,” I say.

“And I’ve always admired your stalking.”

“Clever, but I came here for something else.”

“Pity, I can’t help you.”

“Why not? Zuckerman had Lonoff, you had Malamud,” I say, a fool pleading to put flesh on a memory.

“It’s much too late for that,” imaginary Roth says. “I’m done. Besides, I killed off you and that dog twenty years ago. Didn’t you get the message then? Why don’t you try something else? I hear they have speed backgammon in Brooklyn.”

“How could you write without a heart?”

“Never a problem. It’s the prostate that’s a bitch.”

“Jesus Christ, twenty years and I’m still giving you the best lines.”

“Then, stop. How do you think I wrote all those books?”

“Cunning bastard.”

“On my best days.”

The light changes, and Roth crosses the street. We’re going our separate ways.  “So,” I yell in his direction over the traffic, “Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?”