The Gripes of Roth

Robert Rufa Columnist

Unlike many writers, I’ve never really aspired to write the Great American Novel, and in that regard I’ve succeeded beyond my wildest dreams. It’s possible that every great book that might ever be written has already been written, so why bother? Writers who set out to write a literary masterpiece usually wind up writing something nobody ever wants to read, and I didn’t want to risk that.

I did come up with a title once that I thought sounded rather literary — “The Gripes of Roth” — and I was not unaware of how similar it was to the title of John Steinbeck’s Great American Novel, but I didn’t think anyone would notice. I wasn’t sure what it would be about, but I figured that was a minor detail back then and I’d have a lot of time to come up with something.

Unfortunately, every time I tried to come up with something, I came up empty.

All I managed to achieve was the awareness that I’d have a hard time writing 75,000 words about Roth’s gripes, whatever they were, without putting readers to sleep.

Then something miraculous happened — I thought of another potential literary masterpiece, this one to be called “Fear of Frying.”

Once again I didn’t sweat the resemblance to the title of Erica Jong’s Great American Novel — and for this one I even had a plot worked out.

It would be about a short-order cook who had to confront his fear of the griddle every day or lose his livelihood. Easy. And in the end (spoiler alert) he would overcome his fear, and become a vegan, because he never wanted to see another hamburger or egg as long as he lived.

Well, maybe. I was never locked into a storyline.

But once again I was faced with the challenge of writing a full-length novel based on a flimsy idea. And then I had a brainstorm — I would write a trilogy of Great American Novellas, and I was two-thirds of the way there. Okay, so I only had the titles.

But then with two down and one to go I was stuck, and it was about 10 years before the third leg of the trilogy came to me. One day, as I was driving to the store with Emily Brontë on my mind, it hit me: “Withering Heights.”

But by this time I realized I was probably too old to write even one-third of a trilogy of novellas, let alone all three-thirds, and then get it published, which is an agonizing process. But having had a father who’d learned the meaning of “frugal” during the Great Depression, I couldn’t let these three fine titles go to waste, just as I couldn’t let the crusts of my bread go to waste in 1946. Hence this column.

Pop would be so proud. Or maybe he’d deny knowing me.