The Judge who teaches my Evidence class caught sight of the cover of this book and got excited. “Roth?” he asked. “Not Philip,” I clarified. We talked a little bit about the two Roths; I told him about Call it Sleep and admitted that I’d never really liked Philip Roth. The Judge laughed and said that it was probably a generational thing. And to some extent I think he’s right–I’ve always enjoyed reading books by and about other Jewish people; there’s a certain familiarity to them even when I’ve never picked up that author before. Philip Roth, though–reading his books is sort of like the literary equivalent of the reaction I get when I see something embarrassing on TV or in a movie–cringe-inducing, empathetic embarrassment and the urge to run.
Anyway, enough of that detour about Other Roth. Henry Roth’s first novel, Call it Sleep, is justifiably a classic of immigrant and New York literature, a behemoth recounting of a confused and disturbing childhood written in torrents of lyricism, almost flagellatingly confessional. It was his first novel, published in 1934, and then a 25 year silence until he published Nature’s First Green, then a “composite” in the late 80s, then the four volume Mercy of a Rude Stream in the mid 90s. He died in 1995, and then the manuscript for An American Type was discovered in 2005. Quite a story in itself, but then again Roth’s life story has always been the foundation of his own work–Mercy picks up where Call it Sleep left off, and An American Type continues Mercy.
Ira Stigman, Roth’s alter ego, is living with his older lover, a poet and a teacher, in New York City in 1938, and suffering from intense writers’ block after the publication of his first novel four years previously. He goes to a retreat in upstate New York in an attempt to jump start his writing, and there he meets M., blonde, cool, WASPy, his total opposite. She is a talented pianist and their unlikely romance forms the thrust of the book. It’s a surprisingly sweet romance, given what Roth wrote of his childhood in previous novels, and his own neurotic leanings. The two of them, both passionate in their own ways, balance each other perfectly.
In the meantime, however, there is the Great Depression to contend with; and with Edith, his former paramour and teacher–she doesn’t take Roth’s defection well, and in his stilted dealings with her we see another honest, unpleasant side of his personality. His trip across the United States, in a beat up Model A and even trainhopping, forms another quest to find an American identity in any way that he can. To be honest, however, the parts I enjoyed most were the prologues and the epilogues, in which Ira is an old man dealing with the loss of his beloved M.–these were the parts where all of the tricks were stripped from the writing, where the pained lyricism really came out, even in the small details of their relationship. The small things that an elderly couple is confronted with in the last days of their lives.
It’s a fitting coda to a turbulent life.