Philip Roth’s boyhood house is ugly.
It’s a three-story home in the Newark, N.J., neighborhood of Weequahic, just a couple of blocks from the local high school. The siding on the upper stories is a greenish yellow. Unlit Christmas lights are strung between the bars on the lower- story windows. A hefty iron gate covers the front door.
The gate may be there to keep out exactly the sort of crowd that trundled off three coach buses on the afternoon of March 19 to pose for photographs while fondling what was presumably once Roth’s doorbell. The buses were carrying 100-odd Roth scholars and assorted fans on a startlingly long tour of Newark in celebration of Philip Roth’s 80th birthday.
How did learning that the house in which Roth grew up is now ugly help the Roth readers understand his novels? Outside Roth’s high school, Mike Witcombe (favorite Roth novel: “The Counterlife”), a doctoral candidate at the University of Southampton, sounded almost religious about it.
“It’s strange to be here at last,” he said. “I looked this up on Google maps, and it still doesn’t give you the full impression.”
On board our bus was the tour’s ringleader, Elizabeth Del Tufo (favorite Roth novel: “The Plot Against America”), an energetic older lady in a pink turtleneck. Del Tufo loves Roth, but she loves Newark even more. And with such a large crowd on hand, she wasn’t going to limit herself to a few stations of Roth’s life. This, after all, was “maybe the first and maybe the last time” the trip-goers would visit the city, as she said at least three times.
So the Roth aficionados found themselves looking at the ducks in Weequahic Park as someone read passages from “The Plot Against America.” Later, the group was sitting in the pews at Newark’s Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart, when thunderous organ music broke out up above. Del Tufo insisted that the dramatic crescendo had not been planned.