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  1. Culture
9 October 2014

A writer unbound: driving a New York taxi in the 1970s

Author and one-time cabby Michael Goldfarb recalled how he’d been behind the wheel to pay for acting lessons, studying under Marlon Brando’s dauntless mentor Stella Adler.

By Antonia Quirke

The Essay: Trip Sheets
BBC Radio 3

In a marvellous series of monologues about driving a taxi in New York in the 1970s (29 September to 3 October, 10.45pm), author and one-time cabby Michael Goldfarb recalled how he’d been behind the wheel to pay for acting lessons, studying under Marlon Brando’s dauntless mentor Stella Adler. His anecdotes about her slipped down well. (“You’re middle class!” she would cry, witheringly, in lessons. “You’re boring me . . .”) Then came a brief and evocative mention of picking up Philip Roth in 1976: “a tall man on Madison Avenue” who tartly replied to Goldfarb’s “Philip Roth!” with, “No. But I look like I am.”

Roth was 43 at the time and understandably nettlesome. It was his weird fate to have had – on the publication of Goodbye, Columbus in 1959 – sudden and surprising fame, followed immediately by a devastating shit storm. Recognised as a dangerous intelligence, he had to face down self-appointed community-leader blowhards, the sort who might say: “I haven’t read anything Philip Roth has written but I think he is mocking the burden of Jewishness . . .”

Portnoy’s Complaint, ten years later, was almost inconceivably famous, in terms of public engagement with a serious book. The hoopla over Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections was a mere Beyoncé to Portnoy’s Sergeant Pepper. People cared about Portnoy and talked about it endlessly but, by the time Goldfarb picked him up that day, Roth was still considered “the pervy Jewish guy who hates his parents” (in reality, he had a relationship with them that most people would envy) or: “The guy who writes about sex and doesn’t like women, right?” What’s amazing is that it took almost until the new millennium, with the publication of Sabbath’s Theater and American Pastoral, for Roth’s reputation as a serious, engaged and good man – and as the best living novelist in the English language – to be restored.

And still the blowhards exist! Am I being paranoid to suggest that the Nobel committee remains “funny” about Roth? Can he even hope for the long-deserved prize come December? “No. But I look like I am . . .” Just one line on the radio can have you standing at the hob with your wooden spoon suspended for an age.

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