A thousand student writers in a thousand Creative Writing programs have–upon taking their first Nonfiction course–drafted a memoir about a father dying, or a mother, or a grandparent, or a friend, or a cousin, or a family pet. In the post-grad world, this is referred to without amusement as “The Dead Grandmother Story,” and it is an absolutely hated genre because first-time authors generally don’t know how to evoke emotion, only how to tell us that they felt it, and they don’t yet know how to make the experience of death feel thematically fresh or relevant.
To those who have attempted to write a “Dead Grandmother Story,” or to those who have had to read far too many, Roth’s “Patrimony” indeed feels like one author’s lesson in how to craft this story well. Was I excited to read this? No. (Based solely on my experiences with having read too many poor entries in the genre). But Roth’s tale is rich and complex and poignant, helping the reader to feel the same sense of sadness and loss that Philip Roth himself felt.
How does he do it, then? If it’s a lesson for young writers, what can they take away from this book? Simple. This isn’t a “woe is me” story. This book doesn’t assume that readers haven’t also experienced death, sadness, loss…So Roth takes the following approach: his father has been strong his entire life, always capable, always powerful, but suddenly a brain tumor takes control of the man’s life, reducing him without mercy to an old, old man far different than the father Philip knew for so long. Suddenly, Philip is forced to play the role of father, and is forced to watch the painful process of this once-strong man deteriorate before his very eyes. Philip must make the same life/death decisions that his father once made for the family. How does a son cope with this role reversal, with this strain? And (of course) how does a curious writer struggle with a subject that feels off-limits?
As always, Roth’s book is well-written, and as with many of his 1980s works, it feels good but not great. The great works occurred in the 1960s and in the 1990s (with a few others–“Ghost Writer,” “Plot Against America”–scattered here and there). This is an accomplished work, and interesting, but like “The Facts,” Roth’s other attempt at memoir, much of its interest stems from our fascination with Roth as a writer, and the reputation he’s built from his collective canon.