They lived a combined 173 years, and were two of the best writers of their generation. And now they are gone. Philip Roth and Tom Wolfe. Both died in May, Roth at the age of 85 and Wolfe at the age of 88.
Of course, these great American authors are not completely gone. We still have their books. For decades, Roth and Wolfe explored life in the United States in all its beauty, violence, ugliness and comedy.
And they had plenty to say about the Irish.
Wolfe was such an outsized personality for so long that it’s hard to believe that The Bonfire of the Vanities was actually his first novel, when it was published in 1987.
The book was an extended look at life -- high and low -- in New York City, at a time when crime was rampant and racial tensions were ferocious.
So much so that it’s easy to forget that there was tension between many of New York’s tribes, something Wolfe -- as an outsider, born in Virginia -- was fascinated by.
“Kramer looked at Andriutti and Caughey,” Wolfe writes in Bonfire, as he takes us deep into the criminal justice system, focusing on three assistant district attorneys -- one Irish, one Jewish, one Italian.
Kramer, Wolfe continues, “felt superior” to Andriutti and Caughey. “He was a graduate of the Columbia Law School, and they were both graduates of St. John’s, widely known as the law school for also-rans of college academic. … Very early in life he had picked up the knowledge that the Italians and the Irish were animals.
“The Italians were pigs, and the Irish were mules or goats. He couldn’t remember if his parents had actually used any such terms or not, but they got the idea across very clearly.”
This, of course, is not very subtle. Little in Wolfe is.
But there is more than a grain of truth in the caricatures Wolfe is playing with here. And if Kramer seems like a snob, if this all seems a touch offensive, no worries.
Later on, Wolfe writes, “Kramer didn’t want to be Italian, but he did want to be Irish…the goyim were animals, and Kramer was proud to be among the animals.”
Of course, by the mid-1980s, New York was changing rapidly.
“The Irish were disappearing from New York, so far as the general population was concerned. In politics, the Irish, who 20 years ago still ran the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, and much of Manhattan, were down to one seedy little district over on the West Side of Manhattan…every Irish policeman Kramer met…lived out on Long Island or someplace like Dobbs Ferry and commuted to the city.”
Yet Wolfe’s ultimate point is how strong the Irish mark on New York is. Whatever their actual background, Wolfe suggests that all law enforcement officers eventually “turned Irish.”
If Wolfe dabbles in broad comedy to make his points about New York’s ethnic tribes, Roth plays things a little more intensely. A tragic love affair between a New Jersey Jewish man and Irish American woman is at the center of what may be Roth’s masterpiece, American Pastoral, from 1997.
Dawn Dwyer is a onetime Miss America contestant, which makes her deeply attractive to Seymour Levov. But before all that, she grew up in rough-and-tumble Elizabeth, the “daughter of an Irish plumber.”
Dawn and Seymour marry, and have a daughter named Merry, who gets caught up in the excesses of the 1960s. Before that, however, Dawn and Seymour have an argument with Seymour’s father about how Merry will religiously be raised. Not only is this a fierce verbal battle, but it explodes the myths many like to peddle about how Americans used to get along so harmoniously.
The ultimate tragedy, Roth makes clear, is that for all of their differences, Dawn and Seymour have one thing in common - as children of immigrant outsiders, they may always be looked down upon by those who don’t “like the Jews…and the Irish.”
Roth and Wolfe both remind us of uncomfortable but important truths about America, immigration and assimilation.
(Contact “Sidewalks” at tdeignan.blogspot.com)