Wednesday, April 09, 2008

PATRIMONY by Philip Roth

A friend of mine loaned me this memoir because both of us are working on manuscripts that include people learning to live with inoperable brain tumours.

Roth deals with his own father's diagnosis at 86 with directness and compassion and a certain wariness when surgeons are keen to put him under the knife to carve out bits and pieces of the brain tumour that has affected his hearing and his facial muscles: he looks as though he's either suffering from Bell's palsy or has had a stroke, and finds it next-to-impossible to eat and drink without dribbling the contents all over himself.

His father, ever the enthusiast in other people's lives, wants to have his writerly son help one of the retirees from the Jewish Y get his manuscript published. In an hilarious scene over a meal in the elder Roth's modest apartment, the friend, a Holocaust survivor, hands over the draft to Roth-the-younger's chagrin, especially when he realizes that the old man has written a pornographic memoir that he's having his own daughter edit to improve the English translation.

Philip Roth's appreciation for life is heightened all the more when he finds himself in surgery for an unexpected quintuple bypass about which he lies to his father not to add to his worry, a decision that upsets both of them.

Roth looks past all comfort and condolence to mine the truth about himself and about his father and about death and our fear of it. This is an extraordinary book, strengthened by the power of Roth's narrative genuis.

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