“The Butcher of Desire; or Imagining Philip Roth” is a “longform” piece by Sam Apple, recently published in Tablet magazine as part of Tablet‘s “original fiction” series. It is a brilliant piece of writing. I read it days ago, and I am still thinking about it.
Which made me wonder: What is it about this piece that I find so striking? How and why is this work so significant to me?
I’ve come up with five possible answers.
1) It made me want to read more. Not just more of Sam Apple’s work–more of Roth’s work, too. Specifically, it made me want to locate a copy of “‘I Always Wanted You to Admire My Fasting’; or, Looking at Kafka,'” which, as Apple first explains and then so artfully displays, is a model for Apple’s story. Preliminary online searches have not yielded the full text. The research shall continue, likely resulting in a trip to the library once I return from some imminent travels.
2) Consummate craft. Since I haven’t read the aforementioned Roth work, I have to trust Apple’s description of it as a “literary hybrid,” part-essay, part-fiction. To the extent that Apple’s work, too, is part-essay, part-fiction, it represents stellar, superbly crafted work on both fronts. It’s more difficult than it may seem to write well in more than one genre even when the work is kept separate. The pressure increases when the work appears side-by-side. It’s a risk–what if a weakness in one reduces the power of the other? In this case, both the “essay” and the “story” are so strong–the hybrid form, for lack of a better word, works. And it does so beautifully.
3) An echo that remained. Not long after I finished reading the piece, I read something else online—an essay—and a passage from Apple’s story came flooding back.
He looks up from the corned beef he is now wrapping in wax paper. “That’s why no one comes here anymore—Jewish suffering is a lost art in this country. Not that I blame the Jews. It’s the American goy’s fault. The American goy, without evening trying, without even bothering to think about it, found the answer that has eluded anti-Semites for thousands of years. The way to get rid of the Jews, it turns out, isn’t to persecute them. Never mind all the raping and plundering and killing. This the Jews can handle. This is another day at the office for the Jews. If you want to get rid of the Jews, what you do is invite them into your country clubs, let them enroll in your universities, give them executive-level positions at Metropolitan Life and Johnson & Johnson. If you’re in a big hurry to be done with them, let them marry your children too. You’ll see how fast they disappear.
“The American goy figured it out—a stroke of genius, really: The trick isn’t to have a pogrom but to not have a pogrom. The trick isn’t to call them ‘kike face’ but to not call them ‘kike face.’ Instead of spitting on them, you say hello, shake their hand. Instead of painting a swastika on the garage door, you do nothing to the garage door, or any other part of their homes. Counterintuitive though it may seem, you refrain from hurling even a single rock through the rear windshield of their automobiles.”
It’s not that my own views echo those expressed by the fictional “Phil” in this section. For starters, I’m not especially comfortable even throwing around the word “goy.”
But—I’m not ready to disclose too many details now—let’s just say that the piece I read subsequently (an essay for a “secular” publication framed as something presented in a “Jewish” voice) made me think that “Phil” just might have been on to something.
I know I’m being vague. I’m sorry. But let’s stay on track here. Get me started on that other piece, and I won’t return. (I also won’t be nearly as happy as I am talking about this one.)
4) Kudos to Tablet. In the past, I’ve expressed some reservations about some of the work Tablet has chosen to feature in its prime “original fiction” slot. Tablet, I have nothing but praise for you this time. And I like to offer praise!
5) Remembering D.G. Myers. Finally, this piece made me think of my friend D.G. (David) Myers. David died last September. He is very much missed. Whenever I read something that makes me wonder, what would David think?, I know that I’m reading something important. Something that David would have helped me view with new (and better) insights than anything I can muster on my own. It’s always a bittersweet thought. But thinking of David is always a good thing. And throughout the time I spent reading this piece, I was thinking of David—who certainly knew more than a little bit about Roth’s oeuvre.
So those are some initial thoughts. If you haven’t yet read “The Butcher of Desire; or Imagining Philip Roth,” find a chunk of time (it IS a “longform” piece), and do so. And if you have read it, please tell me your thoughts/reactions!