Ilan Mochari
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BlogJune, 2009
Underground with Philip Roth

I’ve long admired Philip Roth’s skill with long sentences:  

“It felt cavernous down there, but in a comforting way, like the simulated caves children make for themselves on rainy days, in hall closets, under blankets, or in between the legs of dining room tables. I flipped on the light at the foot of the stairs and was not surprised at the pine paneling, the bamboo furniture, the ping-pong table, and the mirrored bar that was stocked with every kind and size of glass, ice bucket, decanter, mixer, swizzle stick, shot glass, pretzel bowl – all the bacchanalian paraphernalia, plentiful, orderly, and untouched, as it can be only in the bar of a wealthy man who never entertains drinking people, who himself does not drink, who, in fact, gets a fishy look from his wife when every several months he takes a shot of schnapps before dinner. I went behind the bar where there was an aluminum sink that had not seen a dirty glass, I’m sure, since Ron’s bar mitzvah party, and would not see another, probably, until one of the Patimkin children was married or engaged” (41-42).

That excerpt – three sentences, 177 words – is from Goodbye, Columbus, Roth’s first novel, which turned fifty in May. It would hardly be the last time one of Roth’s narrators enters a basement. In Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), the basement is where protagonist Alex Portnoy violates an empty milk bottle (19) and tests Trojans (182). In American Pastoral (1998), Nathan Zuckerman recalls the “finished basement” in the Levov’s house as a room “paneled in knotty pine” where Jerry Levov played ping-pong with “violent” aggression (5). In these two respects – pine paneling and ping-pong – the basement in American Pastoral evokes the one in Goodbye, Columbus.

Later in American Pastoral, Dawn Levov wants to buy a house “with a basement as technologically up-to-date as a nuclear submarine (instead of that dank, cavernous cellar where her husband took guests to see the wine he had ‘laid down’ for drinking in his old age, reminding them as they shuffled between mildewed stone walls to be on guard against the low-slung cast-iron drainage pipes: ‘Your head, be careful, watch it there…’)” (193). With its use of the word “cavernous” and its citation of an affluent man who hordes (but does not drink) booze, this description also recalls the basement in Goodbye, Columbus.

My favorite Roth basement passage is from The Plot Against America (2004). It is not about a basement, per se, but a cellar. Yet the long sentences, plumbing visuals, and words like “dank” and “cavern” quickly let us know we’re in Roth’s underground:

“To find myself alone in the dank cavern of the cellar was an ordeal under any circumstances, and not only because of the wringer. With its smudged frieze of mold and mildew running along the crackling whitewashed walls – stains in every hue of the excremental rainbow and seepage blotches that looked as if they’d leaked from a corpse – the cellar was a ghoulish realm apart, extending beneath the whole of the house and deriving no light at all from the half-dozen slits of grime-clouded glass that looked onto the cement of alleyways and the weedy front yard. There were several saucer-sized drains sunk into the bottom of a sloping concavity at the middle of the concrete floor. Secured in the mouth of each was a heavy black disc pierced by the concentric dime-sized perforations from which, with no difficulty, I imagined vaporous creatures spiraling malevolently up from the earth’s innards into my life” (138-139).

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Summer shout-outs: Thanks to my friends at KFFL.com, on whose blog you can now find my sports opinions. I'd also like to thank the media relations staffs of the Boston Bruins and Boston Celtics for allowying me to cover their teams for a second straight season.



Ilan Mochari's fiction has been published in Keyhole and honored by
Glimmer Train. In 2009, he received a Literature Artist Fellowship grant from the Somerville Arts Council, a local agency supported by the Massachusetts Cultural Council. He is a former staff writer for Inc, and he has also written for Fortune Small Business and CFO. He has a B.A. in English from Yale University.

 
    © 2008 Ilan Mochari  
Ilan Mochari