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No complaints

Philip Roth biographer and Oklahoma native Blake Bailey talks 'Portnoy' in Tulsa

Blake Bailey, Oklahoma native and literary biographer, will discuss 'Portnoy's Complaint' at Magic City Books on August 8.

Over the last 15 years, Oklahoma City native Blake Bailey has become a preeminent writer of literary biographies, receiving multiple literary awards and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He also detailed his tumultuous life growing up in his memoir, The Splendid Things We Planned: A Family Portrait. In his biographies, he has tackled some of the biggest names in 20th-century American literature, including Richard Yates, John Cheever and Charles Jackson.

Yet no American literary figure quite compares with the subject of his forthcoming biography: the late Philip Roth, who died on May 22, 2018 at the age of 85. Writing 27 novels and winning most major literary awards, Roth penetrated the troubling corridors of the American psyche and interrogated the intersection of Jewish and American identity in works such as Sabbath’s TheaterAmerican Pastoral and The Plot Against America. In addition to sitting for extensive interviews with Bailey, Roth provided Bailey with exclusive access to his friends, family and papers. 

Booksmart Tulsa is bringing Bailey to Magic City Books on August 8 to discuss the 50thanniversary of Roth’s provocative 1969 novel Portnoy’s Complaint. Bailey took time out of a busy schedule to answer some questions over email. 

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Kevin Pickard: I have to start with an Oklahoma question. I read in an interview that Philip Roth was initially suspicious of your ability to understand and do justice to his life, in part because you were a gentile from Oklahoma. How did you convince him otherwise?

Blake Bailey: As I was (mis)quoted in The New York Times, Philip expressed due skepticism about a gentile from Oklahoma writing the biography of Philip Roth, and asked how I presumed to do so. “I’m not an alcoholic bisexual with an ancient Puritan lineage,” I replied, “but I wrote a biography of John Cheever.”

Pickard: This is your fourth biography of a major postwar American author, but the first that you worked on while the author was living. Did this change your approach in any way?  

Bailey: I had the same basic agreement with Philip that I had with the estates (widow and/or children) of my previous subjects, so not really. Of course I had worries going in: Philip is nothing if not formidable, and he'd already broken with a previous biographer. But I sensed, on meeting him, that he would always behave honorably if I did my work with professionalism and courtesy, and that certainly proved to be true.

Pickard: From what I’ve read, Roth seems like he cared a lot about his legacy. How did Roth view his position in the history of American literature?

Bailey: With justifiable pride in his mighty accomplishment. As the only living American (until he died, of course) in the Library of America, and one of two living (ditto) non-French writers in the canonical equivalent of the LOA in France, the Pléiade, he knows his own importance. I think he ranked only Bellow higher than himself (wrongly in my opinion). 

Pickard: At Magic City Books, you will be speaking about Roth’s hilarious and controversial early novel Portnoy’s Complaint. What was the reaction to Portnoy’s Complaint when it came out? What role did the book play in Roth’s larger career?

Bailey: Philip would come to regret ever publishing Portnoy, though it was by far his most commercially successful book—the biggest-selling book Random House had ever published as of 1969, and the biggest-selling novel of that year. Suffice it to say he got tired of people asking him, in restaurants, if he’d ordered the liver. 

Pickard: Roth had a keen sense of the lunacy of American life, famously noting that “the American writer in the middle of the 20th century has his hands full in trying to understand, and then describe, and then make credible much of the American reality.” Things, of course, have become even harder to understand, describe, and make credible in the 21st century. What did he make of the last couple years in American politics?

Bailey: He was deeply grieved by the presidency of a multiple-bankrupt-casino-owner-turned-reality-TV-star, and never missed a chance to say so publicly. His earlier railing against the likes of Eisenhower, Nixon, and Reagan began to seem pretty quaint. 

Pickard: What is something you think people get wrong or misunderstand about Roth’s work? 

Bailey: Many things. Briefly: Roth believed—correctly—that he shouldn't be judged as a human being based on certain aspects of his work. 

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Portnoy’s Complaint @50 w/ Blake Bailey
Magic City Books, 221 E. Archer St. 
August 8, 7-8:30 p.m., Free 
“Definitely not for kids”

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