Picks and Pans Review: The Counterlife

updated 01/19/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/19/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Philip Roth

Nathan Zuckerman, Roth's fictitious novelist, is back, straining harder than ever to be offensive. Not only does Roth claw away at a reader's sensibilities about sex and religion, but he rips into conventional fiction as well. He even kills off characters—only to restore them when he wants to score new outrages. Zuckerman, the main character in the three previous Roth novels, has a lot in common with his creator. His first fame comes from a novel much like Portnoy's Complaint. He is "the Jersey boy with the dirty mouth who writes the books Jews love to hate." Early in The Counterlife, Zuckerman's brother Henry undergoes an operation and dies. In the book's next section, Henry recovers and flees to Israel. (Nathan himself "dies" at one point.) Nathan follows, to try to make Henry return to his loving family in New Jersey. This is a book that asks: Can a man change a life that is intolerable? Zuckerman and Roth both desperately want an answer. In the shorter term, much of this novel is about Jewishness, and it is a brilliant, tough, funny examination of that delicate topic. Roth also includes a love story. Zuckerman, married three times, falls for a beautiful, sweet British woman whose husband is a brute. She divorces; they marry and move to England. Zuckerman decides that at 45, he wants to be a father. His wife becomes pregnant. As much as this is a novel about change, about being Jewish, about love, The Counterlife is also about writing. Zuckerman observes, "Most people (beginning with the novelist—himself, his family, just about everyone he knows) are absolutely unoriginal, and his job is to make them appear otherwise." His wife finally leaves Zuckerman because of what he might write about her. "You weren't beyond killing your brother," she says, "you weren't beyond killing yourself, or grandiosely amusing yourself on the plane up from Israel by staging a lunatic hijack attempt...The last thing you want is to make readers happy, with everything cozy and strifeless, and desire simply fulfilled." Maybe that's true of Roth, too, but he provides something more satisfying than coziness—hundreds of ideas, small and large, to think about for years to come. (Farrar Straus Giroux, $ 18.95)

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