Roth's lament to perils of success; Zuckerman Unbound, by Philip Roth. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $10.95.
"Zuckerman Unbound" is a sequel. It presupposes a Zuckerman bound. Like the legendary Prometheus who was bound to a rock in the Caucasus, Zuckerman was fettered to a rock in Newark, N.J. A rock of middle-class respectability. A Jewish mom who attends Friday night services and who plays canasta, a Jewish father who is a chiropractor by day and by night writes postcards to Hubert humphrey saying "STOP THE WAR" in capital letters.Skip to next paragraph
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But Zuckerman, introduced in Roth's previous novel, "The Ghost Writer," is fettered no more in "Zuckerman Unbound." With one remarkable novel, "Carnovsky" by name, Zuckerman has won fame and fortune. Variously labeled "the Jewish Charles Dickens" and "the Marcel Proust of New Jersey," Zuckerman is instantly spotted on New York City busses, is stormed by interviewers, badgered by television producers.
Everyone wants a piece of the action. The Rollmops King wants Z. to do a television commercial endorsing pickled herring snacks. A famous movie queen craves an introduction. A column in Variety reports Z.'s million on as yet unfinished sequel to the "smasheroo."
So you'd like to be rich and famous like Zuckerman? But wait. What price glory?
Zuckerman has written a smasheroo, yes. It bears an uncanny resemblance to Philip Roth's own "Portnoy's Complaint." It exposes the Jewish soul in the pornographic confessional mode. It shocks Z.'s mother. It outrages his father. It alienates his kid brother. In becoming a household name, Zuckerman has sold his household secrets. No use to talk about the line between autobiography and fiction. Zuckerman ism his own pornographic hero. Zuckerman is a family scandal.
Nor is this the worst. There are kidnap threats against Zuckerman's long-suffering mother. There is the fear of mad gunmen running wild in the streets just looking for a celebrity to pick off. There are wild comic monsters of conceit who track Z. down in delicatessens to accuse him of stealing their own Newark childhoods.
For all his fame Zuckerman has neither close friend, nor wife, nor love. Zuckerman unbound is merely Zuckerman tied in a new set of knots.
"Zuckerman Unbound" is but a bubble in the wake of "Portnoy's Complaint." (And though less sexually graphic than that book, "Zuckerman" may offend some readers for its explicitness.) Its etho-melancholia is a bittersweet, ironic look at the vanity of human wishes. A sobering look at fame. A case, indeed, of crying all the way to the bank.
Roth is an admirer of Kafka. On Page 200 of "Zuckerman Unbound" he quotes Kafka as follows: "I believe that we should read only books that bite and sting us. If a book we are reading does not rouse us with a blow to the head, then why read it?" The present novel will hardly rouse us with a blow to the head. It will amuse. It will make us laugh. It will raise the age-old question of how art imitates life. Best yet, it will provide some light summertime entertainment.