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Two police cars with flashing lights escorted the buses through the rain. Newark’s reputation left room to wonder whether the cops were there just to help the Roth fans navigate midday traffic — or to watch the scholars’ backs a bit, too. Newark Mayor Corey Booker probably wouldn’t want three busloads of international guests getting jumped somewhere between Roth’s old high school and his old house just as Booker is launching his campaign for the U.S. Senate.
The Roth fans on the buses weren’t just a local crew. The tour was a centerpiece in a multiday conference celebrating Roth’s birthday that drew scholars from around the world. There was Witcombe, who is working on a doctoral thesis about Roth and sex. “Kind of the obvious thing, in a way,” he said. Felipe Franco Munhoz (favorite Roth novel: “Sabbath’s Theater”), a young writer from Sao Paolo, was handing out copies of a translated excerpt of his Roth-inspired Portuguese novel. Gurumurthy Neelakantan (favorite Roth novels: several, including “Sabbath’s Theater”) had come all the way from the Indian city of Kanpur, where he teaches English at the Indian Institute of Technology.
Roth himself didn’t attend the tour. In the back of the first bus, however, there was a man who could have passed for the author’s alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman. Like Roth, he had wild black eyebrows and a shock of hair around the temples. The “Operation Shylock”-style doppelganger, Howard Singer (favorite Roth novel: “American Pastoral”), even went to the same high school as Roth, albeit nearly a decade before the novelist.
Singer was taking the tour with his younger brother, Robert Singer (favorite Roth novel: “Goodbye, Columbus”). As the buses rolled up to Weequahic High School, an art deco building in the middle of a crumbling neighborhood, the brothers noted that the fences around the front yard hadn’t been there when they — and Roth — had attended.
That’s not much of a change in five and a half decades. Inside, however, the school could hardly be more different. When Roth and the Singer brothers attended, Weequahic High was known for churning out students who went on to earn doctorates. In a 2009 documentary, the school’s principal wore a bulletproof vest to patrol outside the building.