Picks and Pans Review: Patrimony

updated 02/25/1991 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/25/1991 01:00AM

by Philip Roth

If nothing else, this memoir should interest readers who for years have been trying to figure out just how much of Philip Roth's fiction is fact-based.

Subtitled A True Story, Patrimony is a loving but never treacly nonfiction account of the last months in the 87-year life of Herman Roth, the author's father. That Herman is a more supportive—but no less colorful—character than Roth's fictional dads Portnoy and Zuckerman (among others) might finally appease those who have attacked Roth for criticizing his parents in particular and Jewish parents in general.

Herman Roth apparently was a difficult man—blunt, critical and so cheap that he refused even to pay 35 cents for his beloved New York Times, reading papers cast off by neighbors. He was nosy, pushy and had advice for everyone, even a young man who robbed him at gunpoint:" Take all the money," my father says, 'but if the wallet's of no value to you. I wouldn't mind it back." The kid takes the money, gives back the wallet, and he runs. And you know what my father does? He calls across the street, 'How much did you get?" And the kid is obedient—he counts it for him. 'Twenty-three dollars,' the kid says. 'Good,' my father tells him—'now don't go out and spend it on crap.' "

But, as Roth makes clear in this marvelous book, Herman was also a faithful, loving husband and proud father who gave his writer son the most valuable gift: "He taught me the vernacular. He was the vernacular, unpoetic and expressive and point-blank, with all the vernacular's glaring limitations and all its durable force."

It is that command of the vernacular, the everyday, that keeps Roth's affecting book from turning maudlin. While much of Patrimony is about Roth's coming to terms with who his father was and what their complicated relationship meant, this is not so much a book about death as one about life—Herman's, Philip's, everyone's.

For all the worrying and caring, for all that his father's illness and death changed everything, Roth in the end is still Roth-still ruminating on his favorite subjects: Jewishness, sex and being a writer.

Who else could plunk a scene about a Holocaust survivor at a dinner party into a story already full of pain—and end up making the reader smile? No one but Philip Roth—who does for writing what Fred Astaire did for dancing: Not only does he gracefully execute leaps no one else would dare, he manages to make it look easy. (Simon and Schuster, $19.95)

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