Mercy of a Rude Stream: Volume 1, A Star Shines over Mt. Morris Park
by Henry Roth
St. Martin’s, 290 pp., $23.00
The oddity of Henry Roth’s career keeps getting in the way as one reads Mercy of a Rude Stream. Had he written a number of novels during his eighty-seven years, one could try to place the new work by comparing it with the others. But we have only a single precocious masterpiece, Call It Sleep, published sixty years ago, and now generally recognized as the most moving and lyrical novel to come out of the Jewish immigration to America before and after the turn of the century. Even if we take account of the history of Roth’s by now famous writing block or the fact that during the last fifteen years, he has, while crippled with arthritis, been able to write no fewer than six volumes of autobiographical fiction (of which the present volume is the first), the power of his first book unavoidably stays in the mind.
The success of Call it Sleep, it is clear, has become obsessive for Roth himself: “Ira,” in the new novel, in asides to his computer which regularly interrupt the narration, reflects on his failure to follow up on his early triumph. “Ah, how could you have let that life, all that life and configuration and trenchancy and conflict escape you? when it was still accessible, still at hand, retrievable, still close.” Groping for an answer, he suggests (simplistically, I suspect) that he felt the need to repudiate both the “Olympian mix” of irony and pity that he associates with Anatole France and the Joycean aesthetic of detachment that had (in his view) informed Call It Sleep. He could no longer see himself as “the arrogant, egotistic self-assured author” he had once been—or accept only “a surface perception” of the “Joycean, sordid riches” of the fourteen years that he spent in a Harlem slum after his early childhood on the Lower East Side. What, he asks, made him unable to approach his experience as successfully as he had done in Call It Sleep?
Was it the effect of Marxism? Of the Party’s influence? He had to consider, to recognize, somehow to indicate implicitly in his writing the cruel social relations beneath, the cruel class relations, the havoc inflicted by deprivation concealed under the overtly ludicrous.
To write with this new consciousness became impossible for him because of what he calls a “loss of identity,” accompanied by a “loss of affirmation,” neither of which he fully accounts for. Even in his old age, as he takes up the story where he left off, Ira must still rebel against “Joyce the necromancer himself,” his “erstwhile literary liege,” and find a different way to deal with the “mountain of copy” he has produced.
Yet despite the comparatively matter-of-fact, more restrained language of the new novel, we are reminded of Call It Sleep on almost every page. The family situation is basically the same, with the fearful, imaginative boy Ira Stigman (instead of David Schearl) still caught between an ineffectual but violent father …