Philip Roth doesn’t live here anymore: A writer, a stonemason, an American friendship
Editor’s Note: This essay, originally published by the Forward on May 17, 2020, won this year’s Deadline Club award for arts reporting.
Philip Roth and Russ Murdock trudged through the woods behind Roth’s Litchfield, Conn., home, looking for Roth’s tombstone.
It was summer, 2008 or 2009. The crickets were singing. The estate, a 200-year-old former dairy farm criss-crossed with old, low stone walls, extends for nearly 200 acres. The writer and the caretaker of his property spent close to a full day searching for something that felt right. But they didn’t find a single stone they liked.
In the end, they tentatively settled for the house’s front step, an irregular granite rectangle. Roth wanted a boulder, but, for him, what was most important was that the stone come from the property. For nearly 20 years, since Roth first asked Murdock to try his hand at restoring those same walls, that land bonded the liberal, Jewish, Manhattanite author and the conservative, Christian stonemason, 26 years his junior. In choosing the stone, they were choosing not just the eventual marker of Roth’s resting place, but also the final product of their friendship: Roth had asked Murdock to carve his gravestone, giving his friend the last say in how, after his death, the world would see him.
It was a striking gesture. Murdock, now 61, cheerful-looking, blue-eyed and perpetually sunburned, represented a side of Roth that was, in the public eye, largely unknown: Not the urbane giant of American literature, but the Roth who attended Murdock’s yearly pig roasts, introducing himself as “Phil Roth” and taking tremendous pleasure in being anonymous, unless a woman he found pretty happened to introduce herself. The Roth who, when a bat got stuck in his house, called up Murdock to demand he come and “kill the son of a bitch.” The Roth who, without children of his own, took extraordinary joy in those of his friends; when Murdock’s daughter, Christina, became engaged, Murdock told Roth, “You’re not the groom, but you may come within an inch of being best man.”
Since Roth’s death on May 22, 2018, as his estate has been slowly dispersed by his executors, Murdock has spent much of his time tending to the empty space his friend left behind. As he has, he’s seen the two Roths — the one he knew, and the one the world revered — come into increasing posthumous conflict. Last July, at an auction of Roth’s Connecticut belongings, wealthy visitors spent hundreds or thousands of dollars on everyday items: A baseball bat, a battered suitcase, a computer stand. Murdock sat in a corner and scowled, wearing one of Roth’s plain black t-shirts in protest, as if to say that there was only so much of Roth that strangers could own.
That was where we met. “It’s strange, when all of a sudden it’s not his stuff any more,” he told me. “I want to say: Stop touching things.” For months after Roth’s death, Murdock spoke aloud to him when he visited the house, usually calling him a motherfucker: “That’s the way he and I would talk to each other.” He kept up the habit after the auction, but something had soured, and, more and more, he stopped feeling Roth’s presence in the house.
It’s one thing to be close to the famous while they live, he was learning, and another entirely to be close to them once they’re gone. The first time Murdock brought me to Roth’s house, the day after the auction, the late man’s wetsuit, which he swam in every day in the pool, was still hanging from a closet door. The mugs in the kitchen cabinets had lingering coffee stains. A pair of worn brown clogs sat dutifully on a low shoe rack by the door, with a black umbrella furled behind them: They looked patient and innocent, I thought, as if they were waiting for Roth to come down the stairs and set out into the lush fields beyond. Being there was an astonishingly intimate experience, and I was only present as an observer; it wasn’t my friend’s home.
The rambling New England farmhouse, painted a pale blue-grey, with Roth’s famous studio in an airy, matching outbuilding, is now on the market, listed for $1,975,000. When it sells, it will mark Murdock’s final goodbye to his friend. Unless Roth intends to haunt the property, which he bought in the early 1970s, the walls in which he composed much of his oeuvre will be someone else’s walls. Someday, Roth will be as distant to the place as the dairy farmers who built it two centuries ago.
“It’s been a chipping away,” Murdock said. “First the car goes. Then this goes, then that goes.”
“And the house goes, and it’s done.”
Murdock, who has lived in the same corner of the Berkshires his entire life, is a jack-of-all-trades. If you want a house in the New England countryside, he can build it out of logs and stone. He’ll drill the well; stock the pantry with deer meat he’s bow-hunted; house your horses in the stable he and his wife, Wendy, keep on their property; provide you with a hearty supply of split firewood; see to the upkeep of your hayfields; and, if you’d like, equip you with a hand-restored antique carriage. He’ll make you breakfast, as well; it will be blueberry pancakes. If you are lucky, there will also be apple pie.
What he did for Roth was simpler: Check for leaks. Heat the pool at the start of spring. Watch for problems with the heat and air conditioning. Make sure the standby generator worked in case of power outages, a fairly common occurrence in the Berkshires. During the cold months, which Roth spent in Manhattan, drive his Volvo station wagon once a week. (Once, Murdock hit a deer with it; up there, it’s a risk.) “What he paid me for,” Murdock said, “was to know who to call when things went to hell.”
The two met in 1999, when Roth called Murdock to chat about fixing up the old stone walls. Murdock had worked for a number of famous people in the area — the actor Sam Waterston, the “Muppets” puppeteer and actor Frank Oz — but Roth’s call awed him. A lifelong reader, particularly fond of the novelists Larry McMurtry and Elmore Leonard, Murdock had always dreamed of working for a writer. He’d read some of Roth’s books, and disliked all of them except “Patrimony,” Roth’s 1991 memoir about the death of his father, Herman. Even so, Murdock just couldn’t believe who he was talking to. When he got over the shock and began the work, he found that he and Roth got along just fine. By the end of the summer, Roth asked him to be the property’s caretaker.
Over time, the two became friends. Murdock still worked for Roth, but more and more, the work was rooted in affection and trust. While Roth was still writing — he stopped in 2010 — he would sometimes give Murdock piles of pages to burn, which Murdock did, in big bonfires in his backyard. He said he never even snuck a peek at what Roth brought him. Roth eventually gave Murdock power of attorney over certain parts of the property. “When he told me, I got really nervous,” Murdock said, “I said wait a minute, does this mean I have to make decisions if someone has to pull the plug on you?”
But it was far from all serious. Murdock, a committed Rush Limbaugh listener who’s never without his pistol, delighted in spending the generous annual bonus Roth gave him on new firearms, mostly to watch his employer squirm in half-mock protest. Murdock has a number of close friends who are Amish, and Roth would pretend to only be interested in one thing about them: When they came to the pig roast, could he talk with the girls?
Once, when Wendy persuaded Murdock to go on vacation, the owner of the New Hampshire inn where they were staying mentioned, without knowing Murdock’s connection to Roth, that he had gotten into trouble as a teenager by trying to write a book report on “Portnoy’s Complaint.” Murdock emailed Roth with the story, and the next morning, beckoned the owner over and held out his phone: “Message for you.” On the screen was Roth’s response, an obscenity-laden note to the owner. “His jaw drops,” Murdock said, chuckling. “His face is sagging. His mouth is opening and closing like a fish in a fishbowl.”
After Roth’s death, Murdock continued to channel the author’s corny, sometimes vulgar sense of humor. An example: Soon after Roth’s death, Murdock stopped by to check on things. “I came around the corner,” he said, “and this woman was standing in the driveway of his house, pulling her shirt apart, big smile on her face, and her husband or boyfriend or whatever is taking her picture.” The couple was mortified. For Murdock, for whom the grief of Roth’s death was still fresh, the surprise was welcome. He thought Roth probably got a kick out of it.
Another: Once a year, another neighbor whose property Murdock oversees brings him to a remote Eskimo village in Alaska to fish. Last year, Murdock brought along a load of Roth’s winter clothes, otherwise destined for the Salvation Army, to give to the local population. Donating the wardrobe made him happy: “I like the fact that I know exactly where it’s going to stay until it falls apart.” It didn’t hurt that he could picture Roth’s reaction, too. “I know for a fact he is howling knowing that a bunch of Eskimos are wearing his clothes,” he said.
At Roth’s house after the auction, Murdock looked comfortable, a far cry from the misery of the day before. He showed me the first wall he’d refurbished, and pointed to the places where, in the course of working on it, he’d found the detached head of a ceramic doll and an old, deteriorated piece of dynamite. (He put both back; they are, for whatever reason, part of the house’s history.) In the living room, he remembered an old ritual he had with Roth: The day before Roth left for New York and the day after he came back, they would sit in the living room and kibitz. It was always bittersweet. Roth would ask about Christina and Wendy, but, Murdock said, “there was never anybody I could ask him about once his brother Sandy died.” (Sandy Roth, an artist and ad man, passed away in 2009.)
In the attic, Murdock held up a copy of “The Human Stain,” open to the dedication. Roth often dedicated books by initials: “Exit Ghost” is B.T.; “American Pastoral,” J.G. “The Human Stain” is “For R.M.” Murdock says those initials didn’t originally refer to him; the dedication was intended for Ross Miller, the editor of the Library of America’s nine-volume set of Roth’s writings, whom Roth originally authorized to write his biography. But Roth and Miller parted ways in 2009, and after that Roth declared, at least in private, that “The Human Stain” was officially re-dedicated to Russ Murdock.
It was a good fit. Once, sitting at Murdock’s kitchen table, Roth told a story about the day he’d woken to the sound of chainsaws and found the local town crew cutting down a row of pine trees outside. “He ran out there, throwing himself in front of the equipment, screaming and hollering and swearing at everyboy and making a general ass out of himself,” Murdock said. The foreman of the town crew was a man named Les Tanner. “Les is just standing there smirking at him, because those trees are coming down whether Philip has a problem with it or not.” Eventually, Roth realized his efforts were futile, but the injustice kept him furious for months, until a friend pointed out that he ought to apologize: The men he was maligning made up the bulk of the town’s fire department. So Roth wrote an apology, and grudgingly called the crew headquarters to deliver it. When Tanner realized who was calling, he asked Roth to wait, and the way Roth told it, he knew — he just knew — he’d been put on speakerphone.
Sitting there at the table, Murdock realized something. “The Human Stain” features a complicated, villainous character named Les Farley. “I said to him, is this Les Tanner? Did you use Les’s name? And he just gave me a great big smile.”
“Philip had a line that kind of cracked me up,” he said, “I’m gonna butcher it. ‘If you sit by the river long enough, you can watch the bodies of your enemies float by.’”
Roth was solitary, but he paid a great deal of attention to the place where he lived, and communicated it in his work. “I said once to him, somebody who can be a little bit of a detective could pin down within a mile radius where you lived,” Murdock said, because Roth had such a habit of recycling the names of local places.
He observed the people, too. A central character in “The Human Stain” is a dairymaid; while Roth was writing the book, Murdock says, he often consulted with his neighbor Dotty Ripley, whose family ran a dairy farm. “He sat for hours with Dotty,” Murdock said, “talking to her about milking cows, about farming.” Once, Murdock had Roth to dinner with another neighbor, Bob Meyers, the former president of Playboy. He thought Roth would get a kick out of the connection, but Roth hardly said a word about the racy magazine. Instead, he listened intently — and asked a lot of questions — as Meyers spoke about his love of beekeeping. Murdock knew how Roth worked; if his writing brought him to a new subject, he learned about it obsessively, until he could write about it as if he’d lived with it his whole life. “If he were still writing, I guarantee, after that night with Bob there would have been something about beekeeping,” Murdock said.
What do we think of when we think of the work of Philip Roth? The hope and despair of post-war America; the agonizing identity conflicts involved in the life of American Jewry; the brutality of men; the brutality of sex. But maybe not the daily life of Litchfield, Conn.: The squabbles, the feuds, the ponds and villages and restaurants, the rural world that Roth loved. It’s an undercurrent in the books, a vestige of daily experience that may not mean much to the average reader, but is one of the better chronicles of the way Roth lived.
He didn’t write about any American landscape. He wrote, in his own sly way, about this particular American landscape. The one where Les Tanner would put him on speakerphone, because if he wanted to feel safe in his flammable old home, he had to apologize to everyone. The one where Murdock’s friend Pat, a local Irishman with whom Roth was somewhat fascinated, would walk the neighborhood wearing a headband with branches stuck in it to keep away the deer flies. The one where Murdock, pistol at his side, would be reliably outside, listening to Rush Limbaugh and working patiently away at the walls.
The first summer that Murdock worked for Roth, he and Wendy held a birthday party for Christina, who was turning seven. Shyly, Murdock invited Roth. He didn’t want him to think he was, to use his term, “starfucking,” but he liked the guy, and wanted to be friendly. To his surprise, Roth came. “I introduced him to my dad, and within five minutes they’re complaining about medication and ailments,” he recalled. Murdock laughed at them for that aggressively older male form of companionship, but still, he liked Roth’s style. “He was vulnerable,” he said.
Murdock’s father passed away a few years before Roth. Two people have died in the house he built for himself and Wendy: Her mother, and their friend Nancy, sister of Pat of the deer fly-repellent headband. When I visited in September, he’d recently received tragic news: A young woman he and Wendy had known for years, whose horse they cared for in their stable, had had a terrible accident and died. The Berkshires can seem like a ritzy destination for New York-based weekenders, but it’s also a remote, harsh place to live. Some years ago, Murdock said, a local woman died, and her body remained in her house for a week before anyone found it.
Where Murdock is well-acquainted with death, Roth could be preoccupied by it. It wasn’t just that he wanted everything — the memorial service, the tombstone — arranged in advance. “He seemed obsessed with the whole process,” Murdock said. “Scared or resigned — which is it?”
Once, Roth told Murdock about a very difficult period, several years before they met, during which he became convinced that his life was about to end. Wanting to be practical about it, he decided he ought to look for a plot for his grave. “He went to some cemetery down in New Jersey, and the guy was so serious,” Murdock said. “‘This guy was incredible,’” Roth told him, “‘he’s bringing me around the cemetery: No, Mr. Roth, you won’t like this, because the view is not that good.’” By the time Roth left the cemetery, he was in a stunningly good mood, reinvigorated by the salesman’s devotion to his cause.
Roth’s mother, Bess, died quickly and unexpectedly. A heart attack took her one day in 1981, and that was that. But the death of Roth’s father brought a prolonged agony that became an ingrained part of the author’s life, and even his home. As Herman Roth, a lifelong insurance man, approached his end in 1989, he briefly took up residence in the Litchfield house. Chronicling that period in “Patrimony,” Roth remembered putting his father in an upstairs room with a striking view over the surrounding trees.
The elder Roth had always been fond of the home. But soon, the place of respite quickly became associated with the humiliation and fear of the final decline. Shortly after his arrival, a days-long bout of constipation reached an awful conclusion, and he lost control of his bowels. In one of the most emotionally wrenching passages Roth ever wrote, he describes his father’s almost childlike despair at the occurrence — “I beshat myself,” Herman said, close to tears — and the gentle, meticulous care he took in cleaning up the mess, and making sure that no one else in the house was aware of his father’s humiliation. “Where it had lodged in the narrow, uneven crevices of the floor, between the wide old chestnut planks, I had my work cut out for me,” he writes. Eventually, Roth began to work at those cracks with his toothbrush, “dipping it in and out of the bucket of hot sudsy water, proceed[ing] inch by inch, from wall to wall, one crevice at a time, until the floor was as clean as I could get it.” “After some fifteen minutes on my knees,” he wrote, “I decided that flecks and particles down so deep that I still couldn’t reach them we would simply all live with.” Herman Roth died a few months later.
Over the years, Roth did a number of interviews at his Connecticut home. The accompanying pictures were a variation on a theme: The author, standing outside the house or perhaps in his studio, gives a sober, close-lipped smile. The extensive bookshelves, stocked with everything from “The Joys of Yiddish” and “Inside the PLO” to “Gray’s Anatomy” and “Advanced Taxidermy,” drew attention, as did the sheer lushness of the landscape. In every picture, the place looks like an idyll.
But while Roth could be obsessive about the house — he even drew diagrams before coming up for the summer, Murdock said, to show just how he wanted the patio furniture positioned — he also had an ambivalence toward it, one that sometimes seemed to extend beyond the structure itself. “One time, we were in the studio, and he looked out at the house. I said, what’s the matter?” Murdock said. “He says, ‘You know, if I looked out there and that house had burned down I wouldn’t even care.’”
Once, in later years, Roth called Murdock in the middle of the night and asked him to come over. He’d been having heart trouble, and, that night, he just didn’t feel right. “We sat in the living room until probably two in the morning, just yakking,” Murdock said. “I went to bed in the guest room. About 5 or 5:30, he says, ‘Russ, are you awake?’ I went in, and he was sitting in bed with his knees drawn up, and he says ‘I know you hate New York City, but will you take me down so I can talk to my cardiologist?’” The fact was that part of Litchfield’s harshness — “It’s a wild kingdom around here,” Murdock said — was its isolation. “When he started spending more and more time in the city, he says, ‘It’s just too lonely up here,’” Murdock said. “‘Who would want to die up here alone?’”
But Roth’s solitude in Litchfield, painful as it was, could yield gifts. On his 71st birthday, Murdock went over to congratulate him with a pack of Rolos, a candy Roth liked nearly as much as he disliked birthdays. He found Roth in the studio, supine on a couch, and threw the Rolos down on his chest. Roth, determined to spend the day in a blue mood, objected. But Murdock persisted, and, as Rolo wrappers accumulated on the floor, they talked for hours, mostly about Roth’s first wife, Margaret Martinson Williams, who died in a car crash in 1968, five years after the couple separated. Roth had hardly ever mentioned her; now he was letting Murdock see an entirely new side of him. “Sometimes, when you went up there, he would just start to talk. He would just reminisce,” Murdock said. “It was almost like it didn’t matter who was there.”
September in the Berkshires means the start of deer season. As Murdock and I walked the woods, he pointed out their tracks; later, very carefully, he taught me how to shoot the crossbow he uses to hunt. We spent several hours in Roth’s home, many of them rifling through unsorted cardboard boxes in the dusty, low-gabled attic. Looking at a box full of French-language copies of “Portnoy’s Complaint,” Murdock remembered Roth joking about the famously scandalous novel. “He told me once, when a book came out, if the National Organization of Women were pissed, he knew the book was a hit,” Murdock said. But even with that controversial book, there were, in Roth’s home, traces of the author’s gentler side. In his bedroom was a copy of the novel with the inscription, in his handwriting: “January, 1969. To my mother and father. With all my love and filial gratitude.”
I stayed at Murdock’s house, which he’s been building for decades. It’s handsome: Rough, large stones on the outside, warm wood and lots of sunlight within. And it’s not yet finished: He always has another project. The outside of the chimney is only done because, some years ago, Christina bet him that he wouldn’t be able to complete it in time for the annual pig roast. He lost the bet, which is how he ended up with a small, fearsome rendition of the Punisher tattooed on his shoulder.
In the morning, we drank strong coffee. He made blueberry pancakes, which were tender and just a little sweet. His shy Dobermann, Ava, who had warmed up to me after a long period of wariness, bashfully put her head in my lap. His cat, Clopsie — for Cyclops — sat in a window opposite the kitchen table, silhouetted by the sun and staring at the technicolor green fields just outside.
Roth’s walking stick, which Murdock had fashioned for him for his 70th birthday, rested by the fireplace. It’s fabulously twisty and polished to a high shine, made out of a Harry Lauder Walking Stick — a shrub named for the Vaudeville comedian Harry Lauder — with a brass cap on its end. Murdock loved the look of the branch, one of several he’d found in a pile of tree limbs felled by an ice storm. But he also chose it for Roth based on a surprising resonance: In “Patrimony,” Roth had written briefly but movingly of his father’s love for Lauder, whom Herman would quote to pass the time as he walked.
When Roth died, his walking stick, which he never took to Manhattan, was waiting by his front door in Connecticut, behind the shoe rack with his clogs. Murdock let the stick be for a long time; it was part of the estate. But one day, after Sotheby’s appraisers had been through the house, he went up to check on things and found the stick lying in the middle of the hall, as if someone had knocked it over and not bothered to pick it up. “And I said, fuck this, I made it for him,” Murdock said. “I brought it back home. It’ll mean nothing to no one once I’m gone.”
He excused himself briefly, and came back with a plastic bag. In it were the clogs that had been left by the door, which I had pointed out on my earlier visit. He’d saved them for me. “If you don’t want ‘em,” he said, gruffly, “no problem.”
In “Patrimony,” Roth writes at length about the parcelling up of possessions that occupies the aftermath of death, and sometimes precedes it. As his father’s condition worsened, he was crushed by an earlier decision to decline any money from Herman’s estate: “I wanted it because it was, if not an authentic chunk of his hard-working hide, something like the embodiment of all that he had overcome or outlasted.” He decided that he wanted his grandfather’s shaving mug, which his father had faithfully kept in the bathroom cabinet, instead. He approached the subject with his father in a roundabout way — tell me about the mug, tell me about the barbershop that it’s from — but could only admit to having coveted it as a little boy, not to wanting it as a man. His father read between the lines, and, after a particularly difficult consultation with a doctor, gave Roth the mug in a brown paper package that bore a message in Magic Marker: “From a Father To a Son.” A bit of family history; a bit of love. It didn’t compensate for the loss, or the months of pain that preceded it. But it did, in its own odd way, make it easier.
Eventually, Murdock took some more things from the house. Sotheby’s declined to auction the beds, so Murdock took two: Roth’s, and another he was later told had originally belonged to Claire Bloom, Roth’s second ex-wife, from whom he’d undergone a deeply acrimonious split that she chronicled in her 1996 memoir “Leaving a Doll’s House.” Murdock was surprised that Roth had kept anything of hers; he insists that Roth had the house fumigated after their divorce. Years earlier, Roth had shown him a draft of his plans for his memorial service, and told Murdock his job would be to keep Bloom from attending. (“I knew he was kidding around,” Murdock texted me, later, “but I knew he would haunt me if she showed up.”)
Supervising the breakdown of Roth’s property, Murdock learned other things about his old friend that he had never learned in life. That while Roth displayed some notable awards in frames in a discreet corner of the house, he kept most of the many trophies of his career in cardboard boxes in the attic, as if they were little more than refuse. That the Roth he knew, eternally paranoid about damage to his house and tremendously sensitive to the natural world he lived in, was in many ways unknown outside of Litchfield, subsumed beneath the sophisticated, accomplished figure of the author.
The September after Roth died, the plans for his memorial service were finally enacted. Murdock considered not attending the ceremony, which was at the New York Public Library, partly out of his profound dislike of the city, but mostly because Roth’s friend Julia Golier, who helped organize it, had threatened to amend Roth’s plans and make Murdock speak. “I am not getting up in front of 400 mucky-mucks, people in the world of literature, and making a fool out of myself,” he said. Once he realized that he had to go, he got to work, just in case Golier followed through — which, to his relief, she didn’t. “I was working on my stone terrace out here at the time,” he said, gesturing to the handsome patio outside. He worked and he practiced, and he worked, and he practiced. “If somebody went by, they would think I was a lunatic,” he said, “I’m talking out loud as if I’m having to speak at this thing.”
What was he going to say? He tried to remember.
“I am not someone from the literary world,” he started. “I am not an author. I’m not a writer, I’m not a publisher, I’m a stonemason. And as a stonemason was how I first met Philip Roth.” There were stories he’d prepared and polished; he’d gotten the whole thing to a clean 10 minutes. But as he told the stories again at his kitchen table, they slipped out of the structure he’d created for them, turning into digressions, big laughs and half-serious, half-sarcastic imitations of Roth’s voice. “I keep adding asides,” he said. “I’m falling apart.”
He did remember the end, very well.
“For you people, you knew him as an author, you knew him as the greatest living author in the world,” he said. “For me, he was the guy who called, panic-stricken, when there was a bat flying around in his house. He was the guy that would set the fire alarm off every time he would cook supper, and I would have to turn the fire trucks around so that they wouldn’t come to the house.” And then he quoted Golier’s son, who at the funeral had put it best: “Philip Roth was my friend.”
In the end, Murdock found an alternative to the front step on Roth’s property. For a time, the decision to use the step for Roth’s tombstone — so ordinary, so silly, he stepped on it every day — made sense. “I asked him if he wanted me to chisel his name in there now,” Murdock said, “and he says ‘Oh my god, no, that would give me the creeps.’” When Roth first asked him to take on the job, Murdock had joked with him about it. “I said, ‘Philip, I’m building my own horse-drawn hearse for my last rite,’” he said. “‘I’ll do your stone first, I’ll fuck that up, and then I’ll know what I’m doing when I do my own stone.’”
But he took the job seriously. And in the end the front step, for all they laughed about it, just didn’t feel right. “I came up one day, and a fox had taken a dump on the center of the step,” he said. “You could see the fox tracks in the snow: He squatted, and he crapped on his tombstone.” He sent Roth a photo: “He calls up and he wants every fox on the face of the earth exterminated.” In October 2017, soon after Roth, without knowing it, left the house for the last time, Murdock found a small boulder on the property that he’d never seen before. It was perfect: An uneven, rounded trapezoid, with a wide, flat face perfect for carving. When he saw it, he said, it seemed to announce itself as Roth’s tombstone: “It was almost like it was fluorescent.” He texted Roth a picture, which Roth liked. “I didn’t want to say to him that I went out and looked because when he left in September I just had a bad feeling,” Murdock said.
They agreed to talk about the new stone when Roth returned in the spring. Over the winter, Roth’s health declined. He was in and out of the hospital, but determined to make it home. In mid-May, he sent Murdock an email checking in on preparations for his return. “Still planning on being up Memorial Day,” he said, “if this old carcass will let me.” A week later, Murdock awoke to a text from one of Roth’s friends, the writer Susan Fox Rogers: Roth was dead.
Roth was buried at Bard College a few days later. (He chose it as his gravesite after learning that two close friends, Bard president Leon Botstein and the writer and professor Norman Manea, intended to be buried there.) Then the work began. “I had a good 10 years to mull this over, knowing that someday I was going to do this,” Murdock said. “After a while you just kind of think, well, someday’s never going to come. And then all of a sudden, one day, it’s here.”
Murdock felt sure that the boulder he’d found was right, but didn’t want to make the final call on his own. So he brought up Rogers and Golier, who he’d become close with over the years, to help with the decision. They agreed with him: The boulder it was.
He dug it up and installed it in his workshop. It was the first tombstone he’d carved, so he called a Vermont stoneworking company, Trow & Holden, for help. They put him off until he said who he was carving the stone for: That call remains, he said, the only time he’s ever used Roth’s name to get something. He spent a day in their offices, learning about the tools he’d need. Then he was on his own. The only guidance Roth had given him was that he wanted his gravestone to look like the tomb of the French existentialist writer Albert Camus, who is buried in Lourmarin, France, under a humble, mossy wedge of stone. Camus’ name and the years of his birth and death are carved with appealing roughness, not the crisp, formal lettering we’re used to. “He said ‘I want it to look like you dipped your finger in black paint and drew it on the stone,’” Murdock said.
Easier said than done. Murdock found the instructions to keep things deliberately messy painfully difficult to follow. By nature, he said, our brains want to keep things straight. And while he’d been Roth’s friend for two decades, and knew that Roth had chosen him to carve the stone for good reasons, he was troubled by doubt. “I’d be thinking, I have no business doing this for this man,” he said. “I’m not worthy of this.”
He knew Roth would want the stone’s shape unchanged. But its base was uneven, so he grounded it in an enormous slab of cement, which would secure it atop the grave. As he chipped away at the face, carving Roth’s name and the years of his birth and death, he saved the cuttings. Now, he keeps them in a small plastic box on a workbench next to the bones of his intended hearse.
The day that Murdock and his crew installed the stone, in October 2018, started out promising. Murdock lashed it to his truck with the text facing outwards, and as he stopped at a red light on the drive to Bard, he noticed a woman break into a huge smile as she looked at it. He waved. It was a moment of pride. But it had been raining that day, and at one point during the installation, Murdock stepped up onto the back of the truck and slipped. He hit the ground flat on his back, breaking two ribs. His head crashed down on a gravestone.
For the rest of the installation, he was in agony, disoriented and dazed. Still, when the stone was placed and the work was done, he felt something shift. “It’s kind of like — now he really is gone,” Murdock said. “Until your name is there, maybe you’re not really gone. Until your stone is there. Until the final date is carved.”
It was a warm September day in New England. The crickets sang. On the campus of Bard College, Murdock and I looked for stones to place on Roth’s tomb.
We climbed a sparsely forested hill to the small cemetery, where Roth is buried just a few steps from Hannah Arendt. (On her grave: A ripped-out sheet of notebook paper, titled “Séance Plan,” that hinted at the unusual fate of those buried on college campuses. “Our beloved Hannah Arendt, we bring you gifts from life into death,” it said. “Commune with us, Hannah move among us.”) A faint whitish vein bisects the mottled grey of Roth’s tombstone between his first and last name. It’s a gift of nature, a reminder that the heralded writer was only one part of the man. In accordance with Jewish tradition, we laid our rocks on the rough, lichen-crusted top of the top of the stone. Did Murdock believe in an afterlife, I asked? “Absolutely,” he said, but he didn’t give details.
On the day the tombstone was unveiled, Murdock “really was sick with worry.” He and Wendy traveled to the unveiling with the actress Mia Farrow, who had been a good friend of Roth’s. Beforehand, they stopped by Roth’s house to get some stones from the property to pile on the grave. It turned out to be a small gathering, and, with little coaxing, Murdock told some of his favorite stories about Roth, the ones he hadn’t told at the memorial.
The one about the time, just after he started working for Roth, when he was restoring one of the stone walls just outside the house: “He’s leaning out the window and he’s screaming ‘Hey! I buried an ex-wife in that wall, right about there! If you dig her up you put that bitch right back where you found her!’”
Or how once, working with the radio on, he heard Rush Limbaugh yelling about Roth, but missed the reason why. When Roth strolled out to chat, Murdock informed him that he’d pissed Limbaugh off, and asked what he’d done. Roth was eating a banana, and he wagged it chidingly at the radio, and called Limbaugh an asshole. But he came back about 20 more times that day, Murdock estimated, to see if he’d catch Limbaugh mentioning him again.
Or about how one day Roth wandered outside while Murdock was restoring a wall. “I says, see that, just like writing a book,” Murdock said, gesturing to his own work. “And he says, ‘What do you mean?’ And I says, well, I can’t do this all at one time, but I want people to have no idea where I stopped one day and started the next.” The next day Roth came out holding one of his novels; Murdock thinks it was “American Pastoral.” “Inside he wrote ‘To Russ, another wall of words.’”
Bit by bit, standing there around the grave, people told their stories. It wasn’t exactly fun, but it wasn’t totally sober, either. “Everybody’s there, and you can’t help but tell the funny stories,” Murdock said. “I think that’s a pretty goddamn good indicator that you did all right.” He dusted a bit around the foot of the grave. A corner of the cement base in which he’d rooted the rock was sticking out from the soil, and he carefully piled the dirt back around it.
We had lunch at a diner in Rhinebeck, a town a few miles from Bard. It’s a small town, but was still too big for Murdock; I could see him itching to get back to the woods, and the deer, and the hay, and the firewood that would need splitting soon. When he left me at the train, we hugged goodbye. The next day he texted me. He would keep Roth’s clogs for me; I’d forgotten to take them along when I left. When I came up to fetch them, he’d teach me to shoot a pistol. We’d go hunting together. He’d make me a cheesecake.
Why the clogs? There’s a remarkable sequence in “Patrimony” in which Roth learns his father has disposed of his tefillin. But he didn’t give them to a friend or family member or rabbi. He packed them in a paper bag, then left it in an empty locker in the men’s room of the local YMHA. The loss of the tefillin strikes the notoriously irreligious younger Roth hard. “I wouldn’t have prayed with them, but I might well have cherished them, especially after his death,” he writes. But he understands. For his father and men like him, secularized second-generation working men, that locker room “was their temple.” Whoever found the tefillin there would understand that they were sacred. Something close to his father’s soul had left his custody, but he could still believe it was safe.
When it was Roth’s time, he didn’t leave his tefillin in a locker. He left his shoes by the door of the house where, each day, he would walk to his studio to read and write, and to the pool to swim. In the last week of his life, he asked Rogers to arrange for Murdock to come see him in his hospital room in Manhattan. The visit was planned for Thursday, but Roth died on Tuesday. Murdock imagines Roth wanted to go over the spring plans for the house, or, more likely, to discuss the tombstone. As it was, after Roth’s death he tried to look after the property the way he thought his old friend would want. He let in the auctioneers and the realtors. He helped make sure that Roth’s friends took away what they’d asked for. (He’s still looking for a brown teapot, formerly on display in the living room, for Farrow.) While the house waited for new owners, he visited every other day, just as he had for two decades.
Bit by bit, the furniture was moved out. Roth’s books, which he’d left to Newark Public Library, were inventoried. There was that awful auction. The listing for the property went online. Murdock adjusted himself to the idea that the house might likely, under new ownership, fall entirely out of his purview: “I’m realistic; nobody owes me anything,” he said.
Through it all, he kept the clogs by the door. Then, just as one of Herman Roth’s friends at the Y likely noticed his tefillin and wondered about them, during that first visit in July I noticed, and wondered. Philip Roth was comforted by imagining that anonymous man taking note. And Murdock, too, was comforted.
But, of course, the shoes weren’t meant for me. Really, they were his all along.