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 (Albert is now called Chaim) and a generous and seductively protective mother, Leah (instead of Genya). Once again we accompany a small boy as he ventures from his mother’s embrace to confront the terrifying but fascinating streets of Harlem, where he must encounter the goyish “other”—often in the form of tough Irish kids who jeer at his Jewishness and are likely to beat him up. We are drawn into the lovelessness of his parents’ forced marriage and watch with the jealous little boy as a would-be suitor (Luter, Albert’s Landsmann in Call It Sleep, and Chaim’s “Americanized” nephew Louie in the new novel) tries to persuade the mother to open herself to the experience of lyupka (“love”), which she has renounced. As in the first novel, the “tough” spoken English of the street kids and the heavily accented, stumbling English of the immigrants are rendered phonetically, while the Yiddish spoken at home is translated (somewhat misleadingly, as Alfred Kazin has pointed out) into exceptionally pure, even poetic English.
But there are significant differences as well. Though in the early chapters of Mercy of a Rude Stream he is still capable of viciously beating his son, Chaim is not the ogre that Albert was. Rather, he is unstable, frightened, neurotically incapable of ordinary human give-and-take, doomed to bad luck and failure. When he gets a decent “jop” as a trolley-car conductor, he must give it up because of bowel spasms—the “cremps” and diarrhea—induced by the lurching of the trolley.) Since Ira is eight at the beginning of the novel in the summer of 1914 and fourteen at the end, school now becomes more important than the streets in his education. Vivid portraits emerge, particularly of the elderly priest-like principal of PS 24, Mr. O’Reilly, who drills his students in “the difference between lay and lie, may and can, who and whom, like and as,…as if, Ira reflected afterward, life depended on their correct usage, the life of street urchins, slum adolescents like himself.”
Another difference, a major one, becomes apparent at the beginning of Mercy of a Rude Stream when, just before Austria and Serbia go to war, the little family of three is joined by Leah’s parents and four of her brothers and sisters who arrive from Austrian Galicia and settle into a six-room apartment on 115th Street. Instead of the almost claustrophobic intensity of Call it Sleep, the milieu of the new novel is greatly expanded, recalling Irving Howe’s memorable account of the Jewish immigration in World of Our Fathers. We watch the effort of the younger immigrants to adjust to their harsh new world and eventually rise in it. Initially, Ira is disenchanted by these new relatives. He had imagined that
they would be somehow charmingly, magically, bountifully pre-Americanized. Instead—they were greenhorns! Greenhorns with uncouth, lopsided and outlandish gestures,…speaking “thick” Yiddish, without any English to leaven it…
With their “newcomers’ crudity and grimace, their green and carious teeth the sense of oppressive orthodoxy under Zaida’s [Grandfather’s] sway,” they “produce in Ira a sense of unutterable chagrin and disappointment.” In one of the novel’s many telling vignettes, Ira goes to his grandparents apartment after Saturday morning services to light the stove—because he is too young to sin he is allowed to break the Sabbath laws—and to look on while his pious but selfish old grandfather eats his dinner:
Served, Zaida fell to voraciously—halted in mid-mouthful: “Here, my child, before you go, relish this.” He picked up a boiled chicken foot from his plate, bit out the one meaty bubble at the base of the toes, and handed his grandson the yellow shank and skimpy talons.
One such scene follows another as the years pass and America enters the war and Ira enters puberty. He takes an after-school job with the grocery chain, Park and Tilford, which then had a branch in the highly respectable neighborhood of 126th Street and Lenox Avenue. Uncle Moe is drafted and leaves for overseas duty after a furlough, accompanied to the bus by his father and brother, who break into frenzied lamentations.
Howling in despair, each one hung onto Moe’s arm. And Moe, stalwart,…dragged them along like a tug between two barges…. Each abandoned himself to extremity of grief: Zaida tore at his beard, tore out bunches of whiskers, wailing at the top of his voice. Saul snatched at his hair, flung himself about, screaming hysterically. Passersby stopped to watch, automobiles slowed down, people leaned out of windows.
Moe gently begs them to stop, while Ira, looking on, cringes with embarrassment, especially when he overhears a cop say to a bystander, “Will yez look at them Jews…Didjez ever see the loik? Ye’d think the guy was dead already.” Ira announces that he would like to go to West Point and learn to be an officer, but the boy is discouraged by Louie, who tells him, “They don’t like Jews at West Point.”
There is no conventional plot in the novel, simply a progression of events and encounters. But three preoccupations become clear. One is Ira’s feeling of acute estrangement from his heritage. This reaches a climax of sorts at his bar mitzvah, when he realizes “he was only a Jew because he had to be a Jew; he hated being a Jew; he didn’t want to be one, saw no virtue in being one, and realized he was caught, imprisoned in an identity from which there was no chance of his ever freeing himself.” He feels that he is held to his Jewishness by a single bond: “his attachment to Mom, his love for her, for the artless eloquence that imbued so much of her speech, for her martyrdom on his behalf…” What is not made explicit but will seem obvious to most of Roth’s readers is that Ira’s alienation is not so much the familiar response of the “second generation” in immigrant families (whether Jewish of otherwise) as it is a specific reaction to his cruel father.
Oh, how different it would be if you loved your father: the Irish kids ran to meet theirs when they came home from work, still daylight in the summer, and hung on to their fathers’ hands: “Hey, Dad, how about a nickel? What d’ye say, Dad?” And their fathers smiling, trying not to, but fishing a coin out of their pockets. If he tried that, he’d get such a cuff alongside the head, he’d go reeling.
Another preoccupation is Ira’s insatiable appetite for reading. The nearest branch of the public library is not only his refuge but the place where he can educate himself and indulge his imagination. At the age of twelve he loves fairy tales, what his mother calls “stories with a bear.” There is sadness in this infatuation: “So often the princesses were not only fair, but they were the fairest in Christendom. You couldn’t help that. Maybe they wouldn’t mind if he was Jewish.” Already the boy has intimations of a calling. With his volumes of myths and legends tucked under his arm, he walks past Mt. Morris Park at twilight and sees the evening star in the western sky:
And so beautiful it was: a rapture to behold. It set him a problem he never dreamed anyone set himself. How do you say it? Before the pale blue twilight left your eyes you had to say it, use words that said it: blue, indigo, blue, indigo. Words that matched, matched that swimming star above the hill and the tower; what words matched it?
Within a short time the boy’s taste for the mythic gives way to an even stronger desire for the “true.” Huckleberry Finn is a revelation. A little later, he weeps “numberless times” over Jean Valjean in Les Misérables. He loses himself in “‘true’ stories” like The Call of the Wild, The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, Poe’s tales and Riders of the Purple Sage. In his reading, “Ira submitted to being a Christian. What else could he do when he liked and esteemed the hero?”
Ira’s sexuality is, inevitably, another of the novel’s concerns. Roth’s account of it—much of it in asides to his computer—is enigmatic, confused by incestuous feelings toward his mother. Once, when his father is out of town, Leah invites the surprised Ira to share the parental bed. One night he awakes, horrified, to find himself (in words that echo Call It Sleep) “playing bad”—i.e., “pushing, rubbing, squeezing his stiff peg between Mom’s thighs.” When he wails that he didn’t mean it, that he was dreaming, his mother merely laughs indulgently and tells him to go back to sleep. Thereafter he sleeps in his own bed.
An amiable young “bum,” Joe, lures Ira to Fort Tryon Park and orders him to take down his pants: when Joe is thwarted by a couple who happen by, he ejaculates against the trunk of a tree—arousing in Ira a profound disgust for what he thinks of as “lyupka” or “love.” His “faggot” teacher, Mr. Lennard, tries to interest him in mutual masturbation, as do several boys of his own age. Ira resists in every case, but in his dialogue with the computer he suggests that these experiences have had a crippling effect on his sexual development—exactly how a later volume will presumably tell us. No doubt it will include something about his affair with Eda Lou Walton, the NYU English teacher who helped him with his writing and to whom Call It Sleep is dedicated.
Roth’s addresses to the computer (which he calls “Ecclesias” for reasons never explained) create a wordy and self-conscious diversion from the main narrative. These asides comment on what has just been told, speculate about the future, and ramble on about various “current events” including the difficulties facing Israel. They bewail the lost decades, tell us about Roth’s work in progress, about the elderly Ira’s suffering from arthritis, and about his strained relationship with his son; above all, they express his devotion to his wife, “M,” the composer Muriel Parker whom Roth met at Yaddo and whom he credits with bringing about his sexual salvation and his eventual maturity. In these asides, Ecclesias regularly talks back to Ira, commenting on his comments and often urging him to face matters he would prefer to ignore—particularly matters involving sex.
These passages seem to me unfortunate. Occasionally they are touching in their accounts of the daily struggles of an old and painfully crippled man and of his affection for his elderly but still “girlish” wife. But for the most part, they are slackly written, self-obsessed, and coy, hinting at, and then withholding or obfuscating, what seem to be important revelations. The diction is often stilted, as in the reference to Joyce as his “erstwhile literary liege,” or grandiose and obscure, as when he describes himself as “supremely exacerbated, into a veritable virtuosity.” The interruptions add to the shapelessness of an already loose-jointed work.
Yet I found myself completely absorbed in the main story being told in Mercy of a Rude Stream. Though hardly a novel in any traditional sense, it is a consistently interesting autobiographical document, richly evocative of its time and place. The writing is sometimes slapdash, but on the whole I did not miss the incandescent language and imagery of Call it Sleep: the plainer and rather old-fashioned language of the new work is colorful enough in the sections that count. While reading Mercy of a Rude Stream, I was often reminded—despite the vast differences in style and ethnic background—of Roth’s affinities with Thomas Wolfe and James T. Farrell. It is astonishing to realize that Roth is not much younger than those long-dead and now, I suspect, seldom-read writers and that like them, but at an advanced age, he has been able to tell us vigorously and convincingly what it was like to be a boy living in the first part of this nearly exhausted century.
March 3, 1994