Monday, October 24, 2005


Straight Outta Weequahic

In his earlier fiction, Philip Roth's Newark neighborhood functioned as a kind of sociological straitjacket, from which the wily novelist had to engineer a Houdini-like escape. Weequahic was primarily a place to get away from. Over the years, though, Roth's view of his old stomping grounds has mellowed. As early as 1988, when he published his memoir The Facts, he began to see the neighborhood in a more flattering light. (Being Roth, he also introduced Nathan Zuckerman for a tailgunning critique: "At fifty-five, with your mother dead and your father heading for ninety, you are evidently in a mood to idealize the confining society that long ago ceased impinging on your spirit and to sentimentalize people who by now inhabit either New Jersey cemeteries or Florida retirement communities and are hardly a source of disappointment to you...") And by the time we get to The Plot Against America, Leslie Street has been transformed completely, into a kinder, gentler, Yiddish-accented locus of urban life.

Well, Leslie Street is no more. Yesterday, Newark Mayor Sharpe James unveiled a plaque on the novelist's boyhood home and renamed the street Philip Roth Plaza. (The ironies are piling up here pretty fast, but we may have to wait for Zuckerman to deliver an expert dissection.) And the author proved that you can go home again, joining a busload of 75 fans for a tour of Philip Roth's Weequahic. "Today, Newark is my Stockholm," Roth told a crowd at the Weequahic Branch Library, "and that plaque is my prize."

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