The following excerpt is from Portuguese journalist and literary critic Isabel Lucas's Journey to the Heart of the American Dream (published in Portugal by Companhia das Letras in 2017). Based on her experience traveling across the US in 2016, the book considers contemporary issues in America through its literature.
Mr. Roth, Mr. Bellow
“Struggle, find success, and assume a common identity. That’s the pastoral that served as a model for generations of immigrants, among them, Saul Bellow and Philip Roth’s parents. Both writers deconstruct the concept via territories with great personal significance. Depression-era Chicago and the Newark of the 1967 riots, each a metaphor for American failure. ”
My feet step onto the platform and a gust of cold wind crosses my face, dispelling the torpor induced by the six-hour journey. The last train of the day is the slowest. The bulk of the journey between Boston and Newark is made to a cadence of dozing in and out of sleep, bodies sprawled awkwardly across the seats, streetlamps illuminating the carriage as though it were a giant screen displaying images in the dark, there one moment, gone the next. It’s three-thirty in the morning and all that’s left of the night is the cold and sudden nausea that hits you when the doors open to the immense atrium of Newark’s Penn Station.
Urine, vomit, days-worth of sweat—the hot, humid air heavy with disgust which—even more than the winter air—freezes one in place. Where to go from here? Dozens of men and women are stretched out along the floor, or sitting with their backs against the walls, stacked atop stairsteps as though they were bunk beds. They seek refuge from the negative temperatures on the streets. They’ll sleep there. Between the shadows of the hallways and the bright light of the more central areas, there’s hardly an open patch of floor. A woman sits near one of the doors. At first, it looks as if she’s peeling an orange, but drawing closer one sees that there’s nothing in her hands, her gesture merely imitates another gesture. Walking the halls is a sort of obstacle course between shadowy figures, bodies that resemble bundles of clothes. Here and there, a few with open eyes stare into other open eyes, and this exchange is too much for both.
From roughly one to five in the morning, America’s train stations open their doors to the homeless, and at these moments, in these spaces, there’s no room for complicity: there’s simply no place for it. On such nights, in Newark’s Penn Station, as in many other stations across the country, there are only those who don’t wish to be seen and those who don’t wish to see.
The number of homeless in the United States was an elusive figure in the year 2000, somewhere between 2.3 and 3.5 million (according to data from Amnesty International). Fifteen years later, on a January night in 2015, those sleeping on the street numbered 565,000, and seven million ran the risk of temporarily lacking a place to lay their heads, according to the most recent report from the National Alliance to End Homelessness, which also reported that the percentage of homeless people in the US had dropped from 18.3 to 17.7 for every ten thousand Americans.
In 2017—the year he left the White House—Barack Obama proposed spending eleven billion dollars over the next decade to help families without a home or at risk of losing their homes. The president’s end-of-term initiative might be seen as a political response to the difficult question that Philip Roth put forth in his literature through the voice of Nathan Zuckerman: “What are we to do about this terribly significant business of other people?” Zuckerman, a writer and Roth’s alter ego, was an adult when he formulated the question, soon after telling how, at ten years of age, he had learned all about “the cruelty of life” after reading a novel about baseball. Older, more cynical, more disillusioned, he would say: “The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living.”
Zuckerman’s tragic literary education was set in a place that, outside of the fictional world, is quite similar to Newark’s Penn Station, a few minutes away on foot, heading south, among façades that expose a now-decayed opulence, ruins of factories, warehouses, stores, graffiti-covered walls, food trucks, and then streets lined with trees, two-story single-family homes, shadowy parks, others that are more inviting, police sirens, and someone passing by at a pace that can be described as anything but an afternoon stroll. There is no “right time” to walk this stretch; there are only the “no-go” times when it’s impossible to guess what might be on the other side of the street as soon as one turns a corner.
Newark is full of shadows, even beneath the sun on a weekday after the cold has disappeared. The city center, where Philip Roth’s grandfather went to live as a penniless man working at a hat factory, today is a sea of people who have nowhere to be, smells of crack, of overcooked bacon from some lunch counter, of popcorn, pretzels, tobacco, automobile exhaust, incense from the string of stores owned by immigrants from India and Pakistan. A woman leading a child by the hand asks where she can find the family court, her voice quickly drowned out by the din of concrete mixers, jackhammers, sirens, music blasting from the nearby arcade, the cry of street vendors selling anything and everything.
The city seems to be trying to rise from the ashes. There are new buildings, office towers emblazoned with the names of insurance companies, banks, multinational conglomerates. To cross the streets of Newark is to witness all the layers of its history, each one exposed like an open wound. The city of the immigrant dream, the city disfigured, and the city seeking to overcome its traumas are the same city where Philip Milton Roth, son of a Jewish insurance salesman, was born in 1933, and where he learned about “Americanness” in a high school in Weequahic, alongside adolescents just like him:
“Our parents were, with few exceptions, the first-generation offspring of poor turn-of-the-century immigrants from Galicia and Polish Russia, raised in predominantly Yiddish-speaking Newark households where religious orthodoxy was only just beginning to be seriously eroded by American life. However unaccented and American-sounding their speech, however secularized their own beliefs, and adept and convincing their American style of lower-middle-class existence, they were influenced still by their childhood training and by strong parental ties to what often seemed to us antiquated, socially useless old-country mores and perceptions.”
Everything was happening and took root around “the most inherently American phenomenon at hand,” Roth recalls in The Facts: A Novelist’s Autobiography. This phenomenon was baseball.
The route to the ballpark in Weequahic is through Newark’s city center, up a hill, and past homes with more-or-less tended yards where the Jewish community once lived and where today you can find families from South America and an African-American community that managed to escape the city’s poverty, drugs, and crime.
Decades removed from Roth’s childhood, what separates this enormous ballpark where youngsters play baseball in southern Newark on a summer afternoon from the train station of the very same city where, on winter nights, hundreds of people take shelter after a blizzard that paralyzed the entire East Coast? It’s not merely a factor of time or meteorology, but a story of failure.
Roth’s 1997 novel American Pastoral is a book about this very failure. A failure that is human and social, individual and collective. But it’s also about ideas like decency, virtue, success, and the defeat of great men who in the end are regular joes too, or about how progess and evolution do not always follow a straight and positive upward climb. It was after writing his next novel that Roth affirmed in a television interview that “If I’m not an American, I’m nothing,” instead of “If I’m not Jewish, I’m nothing,” as would have been expected of an American Jew at that time.
Another Jewish writer, Saul Bellow, eighteen years Roth’s senior, said the same in 1953, in the voice of the protagonist of The Adventure of Augie March, another book about what it is to be American. “I am an American, Chicago-born.” Roth read Bellow and learned that a Jewish writer could write about this experience in a way that was innovative, employing humor, in a language that was modern, vibrant, without doing “public relations work”—a term used by Bellow—to combat anti-Semitism. For Roth, a young boy from Newark, just like Bellow, a Canadian immigrant who grew up in Chicago, being Jewish wasn’t an absolute, but being American was. With all the doubts, insecurities, and discomfort that such an affirmation carried with it. This is the stuff of Roth’s fiction.
At three-thirty in the morning on a weekday, in Newark’s Penn station, the largest commuter railway station in the state of New Jersey, where every single day more than 600,000 riders pass on their way to places like New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Boston, and the suburbs, there is something of an illusion of civilization. Built in 1935, the current station is controlled by the Port Authority, an entity that manages infrastructure in the port area between New York and New Jersey, shipping terminals, airports, train and bus stations. Agents sporting blue uniforms with the initials PAFPD determine who enters, who leaves, and who is permitted to stay on nights when Penn Station opens its doors to those seeking shelter from the cold. “No one sees this except these people and those who open the doors for them. No one comes to places like this at this hour, and since no one is here to see, this doesn’t exist, these people don’t exist, they’re invisible to the world.” There is no emotion in the voice or in the gaze of the man who utters these words. He’s a policeman with a gun in his holster, where his right hand rests inside a warm coat. He lives close by, “half an hour by bus,” door to door, and he asks what I’m doing there at such an hour with the same sleepy tone that he’s spoken in up until then, pointing toward the taxi stand. “Look here, this is neither the time nor place to be wandering around.” He seems as defeated as the protagonist of American Pastoral after “losing” his daughter and being told by his father that Newark, after 1967, became the worst city in the world, “butchered to death” by a fatal trio: “taxes, corruption, and race,” a city inhabited by “people from all over the country who couldn’t care less about Newark.” Could he have been right?
Nathan Zuckerman tells the story. He was born in Newark, like Philip Roth, who created him in his image, the son of Jewish imigrants who, like all those who arrived there, sought out their own American pastoral: “the ritual post-immigrant struggle for success,” as it was described by Seymour Irving Levov, the central character known as Swede in American Pastoral, a novel that is the synthesis of an identity weighed down with contradictions whose origins are in America, and—in the cases of Roth, Zuckerman, and Swede—took form in Newark, the city that one day became “uninhabitable” because it turned the notion of an American pastoral on its head. When was it that everything began to unravel?
In the city itself, it began with the 1967 riots, a violent protest against the social policies of President Lyndon B. Johnson that had spilled into the streets of many American cities and reached Dantesque proportions in Newark. The successor to John F. Kennedy seemed incapable of fulfilling the promises of equal opportunity regardless of race. The population of Newark—for generations made up of Irish, Polish, Italians, white Americans—had been undergoing change since the 1950s, when thousands of black Americans fleeing the Jim Crow South settled in the city, drawn by jobs in the factories and service industries. By the end of the sixties, they made up more than fifty percent of Newark’s population yet were at the bottom of the social pyramid. They were the poorest, people without a voice, they felt marginalized at work, at school, and in terms of wealth. One day, all this tension spilled into the streets after two white policemen arrested a black taxi driver. What followed were six of the darkest days in recent US history. Twenty-six people died, hundreds were wounded, and the city never recovered. Those who could fled. And this became the tragic destiny of Newark that has endured to this day: the only ones who seem to stay behind are those who are unable to leave.
In Roth’s book, the moment when everything unraveled occurs with the crime committed by the Swede’s daughter. One day in 1968, Merry blows up a post office building in protest against the American values used to justify the war in Vietnam. It was Swede’s first experience of defeat, the “displacement of another American entirely, the daughter and the decade blasting to smithereens his particular form of utopian thinking, the plague infilitrating the Swede’s castle and there infecting everyone. The daughter who transports him out of the longed-for American pastoral and into everything that is its antithesis and its enemy, into the fury, the violence, and the desperations of the counterpastoral—into the indigenous American berserk,” as Zuckerman writes, via Roth, about the perplexity the Swede experiences in the face of this tragic fall. The moment in which “the impossible happens.”
This is the territory that serves as a jumping-off point for all of Philip Roth’s novels, and prior to them, those of Saul Bellow, a sort of ghost lurking about. A force that transforms, generates discomfort, disturbs, that is very much tied to the affirmation of one’s Americaness, to identity. Newark, like the Chicago of Bellow, is a metaphor for this sensation of rupture, of disruption. The negation of a continuous line of evolution.
The starting point for the novel is this idea of a bomb-toting young woman. It was the stain that would blemish the purity of feminine adolescence. It would take years to lift it. She was the fourth generation of a family that had immigrated to Newark, daughter to a local hero, heir to the owner of a glove factory and the greatest baseball player ever to put on the uniform for Weequahic High School with its predominantly Jewish student body. The Swede was blond as an Aryan but had a Jewish last name, a symbol of assimilation, the poster boy for all, not just for the Jewish community to which he belonged. American Pastoral begins:
“Conflicting Jewish desires awakened by the sight of him were simultaneously becalmed by him; the contradiction in Jews who want to fit in and want to stand out, who insist they are different and insist they are no different, resolved itself in the triumphant spectacle of this Swede who was actually only another of our neighborhood Seymours whose forebears had been Solomons and Sauls and who would themselves beget Stephens who would in turn beget Shawns. Where was the Jew in him? You couldn’t find it and yet you knew it was there.”
The Swede was a historical instrument thanks to his status as a symbol of assimilation—just as, years later, his daughter will be a symbol for defying the arch of History.
The reader learns all this through the voice of the narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, the writer-protagonist Philip Roth created in 1974 with My Life as a Man who would come to be protagonist and/or narrator of more than nine of Roth’s novels. In American Pastoral, Zuckerman is in his sixties, feeling depressed, and he meets up with his childhood hero, the Swede, at a point when this other man has formed a second family. Earlier, the Swede had married Miss New Jersey 1949, a Catholic from Newark, and together they moved to the suburbs, far from the Jewish neighborhood of Zuckerman and the Swede’s childhood. It is then, in 1968, at the age of sixteen, that the Swede’s daughter plants a bomb, killing a man. Zuckerman, standing in for Roth, seeks to penetrate the Swede’s consciousness and transform it into words, but to do so in counterpoint to another state of consciousness: his own.
Deep down, Zuckerman and the Swede are polar opposites of the same reality: social, religious, geographic. On the one side, the man obsessed, tortured by his internal conflict, ravaged again and again by feelings of rage and impotence, who saves himself through writing; on the other side, “the banal and conventional,” to Zuckerman’s mind, someone defined by “an absence of negative values and nothing else.” Zuckerman seeks to write about the Swede from the standpoint of a single question: what is and where is the Swede’s individuality, and how does it manifest itself? The construction of this narrative, in which the reader feels himself a privileged spectator, is the investigation of the Swede’s essence by the writer. The book, published in 1998 to great critical reception, won the Pulitzer that same year. Many perceived the book as a political novel, written by someone who seemed to have changed sides and now embraced neoconservatism.
And yet, as Claudia Roth Pierpont notes in her literary biography Roth Unbound (2012), Roth never gives merely a single perspective on the things in his books. Roth Pierpont—no relation to Philip—cites the author: “I don’t write about my convictions.” Roth wished to say that he is a writer, not a politician, and for that reason he can talk about everything, in the same way Saul Bellow did before him in The Adventure of Augie March:
“It was now full winter, and barbarous how raw; so going around the city on the spidery cars, rides lasting hours, made you stupid as a stoveside cat because of the closeness inside [ . . . ] There haven’t been civilizations without cities. But what about cities without civilizations? An inhuman thing, if possible, to have so many people together who beget nothing on one another. No, but it is not possible, and the dreary begets its own fire, and so this never happens.”
Augie, Bellow’s protagonist, crisscrosses the Chicago of the Great Depression. The middle child of a woman whose husband has abandoned the family, Augie tries to survive his fate as a poor boy in the early twentieth century on Chicago’s West Side, which at the time was home to immigrants, vagrants, boxers, and prostitutes, a place of religious orthodoxy, segregation and people trying to survive. The book is the story of Augie’s formation. Augie was not to Bellow what Zuckerman is to Roth, but in both there are traces of a shared childhood. Bellow grew up in the same place as Augie; Roth’s geography is Zuckerman’s, too. In both cases, author and character had common social, economic, and familial circumstances. Likewise, in both cases, the writers never escaped these formative locales.
Philip Roth and Saul Bellow met in Chicago in 1956. Roth was a student at the University of Chicago and Bellow “one of [his] literary enthusiasms,” as he defined him in The Facts. It was in Chicago that he read Augie March and found in it proof of the genius of Bellow, for Roth the “great liberator from traditional Jewish literary confines.” Among other things, it also became evidence to him that “the Jewish experience could be made into American literature.” Zachary Leader, author of the biography The Life of Saul Bellow, the first volume of which was published in 2015, remarks that for Bellow it was clear that, as a writer, “he was in a better position as a Jewish writer in America than as a Jew in Europe.” Why this affirmation? Leader explains,
“Despite the warnings and suspicions against Jews in America, his identity as an American was never questioned, something he didn’t believe possible in European countries. And he insisted on saying he was as American as he was Jewish. He was not, however, a practicing Jew, despite having grown up in a family of Orthodox Jews, though he felt it was crucial for Jews to maintain their history and their values, which he saw as tools to combat the nihilism predominant in the West.”
Leader likewise explains Bellow’s fixation on the identity question, the “key theme” throughout all of his literature, and the very same theme Roth would privilege throughout his career. In the mind of Bellow’s biographer, the writer’s Jewish side “had a decisive role in the way he defended the State of Israel—he defended immediate peace—which he saw as the only way for the Jewish people to overcome what he called ‘the curse of the Holocaust, and the abasement of victimization.’”
Philip Roth was among the American Jews who thought this way, too, but the paths trod by Roth and Bellow in the story of Jewish self-affirmation in America were different. Roth belonged to the third generation of immigrants to America. Bellow was born in Canada, the son of Russian immigrants, and moved to Chicago at the age of nine. The family settled down on the West Side, next to Humboldt Park, an area that was the traditional home of Chicago’s lower-middle class—today it is one of the most highly sought after regions of the city—and that has boasted great ethnic diversity since the founding of the city: Jews from Europe, Polish, Germans, Italians, and more recently those from Mexico and Puerto Rico, not to mention a large African-American community. This is the social and geographic nucleus of Bellow’s literature and the heart of Augie March.
Chicago is a two-and-a-half-hour flight from Newark, and one arrives there to one of Saul Bellow’s phrases: “To be concise about Chicago is harder than you might think.” It’s a city of 2.7 million, the third most populous in the United States, traditionally Democratic, hometown to Michelle Obama. The first President Bush was the last Republican president to win there, in 1988. “The city stands for something in American life, but what that something is has never been altogether clear,” Bellow wrote in “Chicago: The City That Was, The City That Is,” which can be found in the collection Saul Bellow, There is Simply Too Much to Think About, edited by writer Benjamin Taylor and published in 2015. He writes, “The city is always transforming itself and the scale of the transformation is tremendous.”
The Chicago of Augie March is no longer the same for this reason, but also for this reason the city remains unchanged in its capacity to reinvent itself. To land in Chicago is to collide with this whirlwind present as soon as one touches down in O’Hare, the second busiest airport in the world (after Atlanta), and confront all the phantoms that have made—and continue to make—the city a point of reference. Literary, musical, social, and political. The surface and, above all, the subworld that seeped into the language and imagination of so many artists. “Bellow is the Chicago writer par excellence, he loved the city despite all its imperfections,” Leader says. “He saw the city as the great image of America, and also of materialism. And as a fierce enemy of materialism, he wasn’t the least bit enamored of this.”
Besides inserting people he knew into what he wrote, Bellow made use of the landscape, the atmosphere. Everything is recognizable: “the neighborhoods, the restaurants, the houses, the public buildings,” Leader says. To follow Division Street, which crosses the entire city, is to take a trip through the entire history of Chicago and recognize traces of Bellow along the way, as though he drew his inspiration not from the city, but the city from him. How far did this influence reach? Zachary Leader speaks of Bellow’s capacity to create a language that sums up not only Chicago and his relationship to the city, but his relationship with America:
“Bellow gave voice to segments of the population that, up to that point, hadn’t been heard by the so-called literary culture. He discovered an American language that was different, that was capable of portraying the street as much as the ivory tower. His range of references was enormous. Gore Vidal referred to him as ‘the only American intellectual who reads books’ in the sense that Bellow knew everything about the lowest rungs of the city, the gangsters, local corruption, the street vendors, the lowlifes, the millionaires.”
Martin Amis also met Saul Bellow in Chicago. It was 1983, when a newspaper sent Amis to interview the man he considered the greatest American writer of all time. “I was shaking I was so nervous, to which he quite strategically responded: ‘I ordered us both tea,’” Amis recently told a New York audience at a public event about Bellow, remembering the beginning of a friendship that only came to an end with Bellow’s death. In a symbolic gesture, Amis wore a shirt and jacket that belonged to Bellow that the writer had asked to have delivered to Amis after his death. Amis underscored the irony of a life that brought someone with the imagination and creativity of Bellow to die of Alzheimer’s. To Amis’s mind, Augie March is the Great American Novel. “When you arrive at the end there is nothing more to say about anything at all,” Amis claimed during a 2011 lecture in Chicago, adding that he considered “Saul” a typo of the word “soul.” And like Augie, Bellow was a clean slate where the city of Chicago began to inscribe itself. The metaphor belongs to Amis, but it’s Leader who recalls that the city and the struggle against the authority of a father who called him an idiot were the decisive factors behind Saul Bellow becoming who he was. “Roth didn’t have to take up this struggle with his father,” Leader recalls, and in the second volume of his biography of the author of Augie March, he writes of the Nobel Prize of 1976 and the death of Bellow in 2005, which would become one of Roth’s literary obsessions. The longer interview that the writer from Newark had been conducting by letter would, as a result, remain unfinished. In the interview, Saul Bellow says that much of the story of Augie March is the story of Jews in America, before confessing: “When I became a writer, I hoped to reveal, in some way, my own unique responses to human existence. Why write, if not for this?”
Roth’s interview of Bellow began in 1998, a year after the publication of American Pastoral. The writer from Newark was living in Connecticut, and the writer from Chicago in Vermont, and Newark had been undergoing a long decline from which it seemed unlikely the city would ever emerge. In Roth Unbound, Claudia Roth Pierpont recalls that when Philip Roth wrote American Pastoral, Newark was the most violent city in the country according to an FBI ranking. Later the city recovered and this statistic began to fall. In 2015, the city was in ninth place, having jumped to that position from nineteenth the year before. Detroit, Oakland, and Memphis held the first three positions. “Roth compares his beloved Newark to Atlanta under Sherman [The Battle of Atlanta in July of 1864, during the Civil War, when General Sherman defeated Southern troops. More than forty percent of the city was destroyed by a fire that lasted days and killed thousands of people] or, worse, to Carthage, because of the finality of the destruction,” Roth Pierpont writes in Roth Unbound, where she also cites American Pastoral as an example of the portrayal of this collapse that began in 1967, and the subsequent pillaging. As the Swede says,
“The American appetite for ownership is dazzling to behold. This is shoplifting. Everything free that everyone craves, a wanton free-for-all free of charge, everyone uncontrollable with thinking, Here it is! Let it come! In Newark’s burning Mardi Gras streets, a force is released that feels redemptive, something purifying is happening, something spiritual and revolutionary perceptible to all. The surreal vision of household appliances out under the stars and agleam in the glow of the flames incinerating the Central Ward promises the liberation of all mankind. Yes, here it is, let it come, yes, the magnificent opportunity, one of human history’s rare transmogrifying moments: the old ways of suffering are burning blessedly away in the flames, never again to be resurrected, instead to be superseded, within only hours, by suffering that will be so gruesome, so monstrous, so unrelenting and abundant, that its abatement will take the next five hundred years. The fire this time—and next? After the fire? Nothing. Nothing in Newark ever again.”
He says this filled with rage in the face of these events, sitting in his office at the factory, in the midst of the chaos. In a voice that is also in a process of transformation.
Nearly fifty years have passed since Roth first brought this voice to his fiction and nearly twenty since he published American Pastoral. “Nothing in Newark ever again,” is like an echo, a curse. The city sits about twenty minutes from midtown Manhattan by train. By car, one never knows. These are eighteen miles that mean much more than leaving one state and entering another. With 282,000 residents—forty percent fewer than in 1930—it’s the most populous city in New Jersey and one of the most ethnically diverse in the country. It lost some of its population after the riots of 1967. In the South Ward, in the residential neighborhoods, for a year after the riots, two moving trucks a day could be found on nearly every street, homeowners fleeing town, abandoning their modest dwellings, which they sold for whatever price they could fetch.
At that time, on April 4, 1968, Herman Roth, after learning that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated, told his son: “Newark’s going to go up, you’ll see.” Philip was thirty-five at the time, had already written two books—Goodbye, Columbus (1962) and When She Was Good (1967). He’d given up trying to be a lawyer for Jewish causes, as he’d dreamed of doing as a child, and was living in New York. He learned of the death of Martin Luther King as he was dining in a restaurant on Houston Street. In The Facts, Roth recalls:
“For all his force, King, whom I had never met, had always struck me as personally remote, almost featureless, his moral self-conception on the scale of a mountain rather than of a man, and so what his death provoked in me wasn’t tears of pity and grief but a sense of foreboding and fear: an unspeakable crime was going to cause unimaginable social disaster.”
American despair had found new ways of expressing itself.
Roth left Newark at the age of seventeen, and his family soon followed. His parents went to live in a nearby suburb, Elizabeth, host to the second largest airport serving New York City, Liberty International. Socially, it’s nearly as complex as Newark, but without the same sense of defeat. To reach the city by car, avoiding the highway surrounded on all sides by warehouses, mechanics shops, shopping centers, outlet malls, or the busy shipping terminal, one passes through several areas and social strata: blacks, South Americans, Irish, Polish, Orthodox Jews, and houses that grow bigger and bigger with yards that become better cared for, before once again passing into another area lower on the social ladder as one nears the Elizabeth city center.
Andrew is behind the wheel of the Uber that crosses the nearly white end-of-March landscape. The snow refuses to melt, despite the bright sun. “Nobody wants anything to do with Newark,” he says. And “nobody” means politicians. He gives names. Cory Booker, the Democrat who served as mayor from 2006 to 2013 and is currently a senator, and who created an ambitious plan to revitalize the city; Ras Baraka, also a Democrat, born in Newark, and the man who replaced Booker in 2014; and Chris Christie, likewise from Newark, and New Jersey’s Republican governor. In 2015, Christie announced his candidacy for the 2016 presidential elections but had to drop out due to his involvement in Bridgegate, a scandal caused by a five-day blockade of the George Washington Bridge between New York and New Jersey in 2013. Soon thereafter, he declared his support for Trump.
“Newark doesn’t have a lot of votes, doesn’t win elections, a good part of the population lives underground, on the margins, and it appears people want to keep it that way,” says Andrew, a technician for a telecommunications company who drives clients around every afternoon to increase the family income and pay tuition for his nineteen-year-old daughter. “She’s studying communications. She’s a good girl, she survived all this and I want to make it worth it for her,” he explains and then, without skipping a beat, declares his intention to vote for Trump. Only later does he glance in the rearview mirror. He knows his statement might generate discomfort.
“He doesn’t belong to this system that feeds all this corruption, this social divide, that made people take on debt for life just so they can study or get medical treatment, that’s strangled the middle class.” He is neither a Democrat nor a Republican, he prefers to say that he’s free to choose and he’s tired of business as usual. “I voted for Barack Obama,” he says, “I know he did some things and can’t do others, but he’s black and I thought that maybe this would become clear in some of his policies. I’m white, but I live in a black community and I didn’t notice much. I know Trump has some stupid ideas, but when he gets there someone will steer him straight.”
The car returns to the same spot it left from, in Penn Station, along the north side that Philip Roth describes as the Down Neck, so named because of the shape of the nearby Passaic River. It’s the neighborhood now known as the Ironbound, where the Swede had his glove factory, historically the poorest part of Newark. This was true until 1967: from that point on, poverty, destitution, and social disadvantage are difficult adjectives to apply to any single part of the city, and Ironbound can sometimes appear an oasis. Today, the population is composed of blacks (52%), Latinos (18%), and non-Latino whites (11%). Twenty-eight percent of the population lives below the poverty line and only twelve percent of those over the age of twenty-five have finished high school. It’s statistics like these that have Andrew ready to vote for Donald Trump, an act that brings to mind the Swede, who resisted leaving Newark to the very end. For the Swede, the very end was 1968. For Andrew, the next finish line was November 8, 2016, when Americans would go to the polls: “Whoever wins, I just hope things improve, I don’t know what worse would even look like.”
Andrew has never read Philip Roth, he never thought about that fact that Roth came from there, there’s no such thing as literary tourism in Newark. “There’s no such thing as tourism, period, in Newark,” he laughs nervously. He doesn’t even know that the writer no longer writes. Roth has kept silent, he has made no public declaration about these latest elections, but there are those who detect in The Plot Against America—a fictional alternative history in which Charles Lindbergh, the famous aviator accused of supporting the Nazis, is elected president in 1940, defeating Franklin Delano Roosevelt—the literary prediction of someone like Donald Trump becoming president. Could America be one step from dystopia?
American Pastoral, Philip Roth
The Adventures of Augie March, Saul Bellow
Newark, New Jersey
The Facts: Autiobiography of a Novelist, Philip Roth
Roth Unbound, Claudia Roth Pierpont
The Plot against America, Philip Roth
My Life as a Man, Philip Roth
The Life of Saul Bellow, Zachary Leader
Saul Bellow: There Is Simply Too Much to Think About, Benjamin Taylor