‘Here We Are: My Friendship with Philip Roth’
Here We Are: My Friendship with Philip Roth By Benjamin Taylor (Penguin Books, 171 pp.)
“We’ve laughed so hard,” Philip Roth once said to his close friend Benjamin Taylor. “Maybe write a book about our friendship.”
With that permission, Taylor has freely wrought an exquisite portrait of one of the most intriguing writers in American literary history. More than that, Here We Are is an absorbing and intimate study of a decades-long friendship that was neither marriage nor love affair. “I cannot hope for another such friend,” writes Taylor, who first met Roth in 1995 at the birthday party of a mutual friend.
A brilliant writer in his own right, Taylor’s spellbinding prose has won numerous awards, including Hadassah Magazine’s Harold U. Ribalow Prize for his 1995 novel, Tales Out of School. He describes the friend he knew in eight chapters that move back and forth in time, sharing memories of the thousands of hours they spent together, the daily jokes and conversations that veered from American history—Roth’s passion—to novels, politics, movies, family, baseball, food, ex-friends, ex-lovers, health and death. Roth even dedicated his 2007 novel, Exit Ghost, to Taylor.
Like his friend-mentor, Taylor, 67, lives in the details. With swift precision, he plunges the reader into the heart of each scene, illuminating Roth’s “outsize personality in love and rage,” his need to prevail in conflict and his private, playful side. He includes Roth’s descriptions of childhood visits to Connecticut to see Great-Aunt Meema Gitcha, “somehow the most Jewishly-Yiddishy event” of Roth’s youth. “We could have been driving all the way back to the folkland of Galicia,” he quotes Roth. To avoid phone charges, when they arrived back in Newark from the visits, his parents would call her person-to-person with a prearranged signal to indicate they got home safely: They’d ask to speak to Moishe Pipik (a jokey Yiddish nickname that translates as Moses Bellybutton, and which Roth used for a character in Operation Shylock).
Toward the end of his life, Taylor writes, Roth, who passed away in 2018 at age 85, took a “death-defying satisfaction” in the vastness of his work, rereading his own books.
Taylor was invariably at Roth’s side, unlikely companions, a gay man with an older straight one. “I’m not who I’d have been without him,” Taylor writes in the book. “He managed to figure out more about me than I ever could about him…. His love acted on me, as on everyone, like a truth serum. He possessed the terrible gift of intimacy.”
Rahel Musleah, a frequent contributor to Hadassah Magazine, leads tours of Jewish India and speaks about its communities.