Yuh wanna play bad?

Christopher Tayler

  • Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth by Steven Kellman
    Norton, 372 pp, $16.99, September 2005, ISBN 0 393 05779 8
  • Call It Sleep by Henry Roth
    Picador US, 462 pp, $15.00, July 2005, ISBN 0 312 42412 4

For a long time, Henry Roth’s silence was considered one of the most resonant in modern American literature. Ralph Ellison and J.D. Salinger were his only competition. When Call It Sleep (1934), Roth’s first novel, became a bestseller, thirty years after it first appeared, reporters found him scraping a living in Maine, gloomily slaughtering ducks and geese with equipment he’d made out of parts scavenged from discarded washing-machines. There had been no second novel. ‘As far as literature is concerned,’ he told an interviewer in 1969, ‘I am in reality no longer alive.’ Although he had managed to sell four short stories to the New Yorker during the intervening decades, the most eye-catching part of his post-Call It Sleep output was a short guide to setting up a home-butchering operation, written for a waterfowl trade magazine in 1954. He composed it, he informed an admirer years later, with uncharacteristic zest: ‘It was my first intimation that maybe I was coming out of this terrible, terrible bog.’

After his rediscovery, Roth took another thirty years to publish his second novel, A Star Shines over Mt Morris Park (1994), and during that time there was much speculation about the causes of his prolonged failure to write. A lot of it focused on Call It Sleep, which tells the story of a sensitive immigrant child growing up in Brooklyn and the Lower East Side a few years before the First World War. David Schearl, the protagonist, lives in terror of his father, an implacably resentful man called Albert, who boils with rage every evening while recounting real or imagined workplace slights: ‘They look at me crookedly, with mockery in their eyes! How much can a man endure?’ ‘Shudder when I speak to you,’ he commands his timid son. Genya, David’s mother, protects him from Albert’s occasional violence, but can’t do much about the threatening world outside their tiny flat: a world in which the family’s eloquent Yiddish speech, rendered in a quasi-biblical high style by the novel, is replaced by the cacophonous English of the local street kids and Irish cops.

As an imaginative little boy, David is frightened of their apartment building’s cellar, believing that rats creep up from it at night. It starts scaring him even more when Annie, the upstairs neighbours’ slightly older daughter, lures him into a cupboard in which her mother keeps a rat trap. Annie offers to teach him how to ‘play bad’:

‘Yuh must say, Yuh wanna play bad? Say it!’

He trembled. ‘Yuh wanna play bad?’

‘Now, you said it,’ she whispered. ‘Don’ forget, you said it.’

By the emphasis of her words, David knew he had crossed some awful threshold.

‘Will yuh tell?’

‘No,’ he answered weakly. The guilt was his.

‘Yuh swear?’

‘I swear.’

‘Yuh know w’ea babies comm from?’

‘N-no.’

‘From de knish.’

Knish?

‘Between de legs. Who puts id in is de poppa. De poppa’s god de petzel. Yaw de poppa.’ She giggled stealthily and took his hand. He could feel her guiding it under her dress, then through a pocket-like flap. Her skin under his palm. Revolted, he drew back.

David is about six years old here, and as he grows older his confused sexual knowledge gets bound up with other mysteries. Learning Hebrew from the surly neighbourhood rabbi, he becomes obsessed with the burning coal touched to Isaiah’s lips by an angel: ‘In a cellar is coal … Where is God’s cellar I wonder?’ He also overhears his mother confessing that, back in the old country, she disgraced herself by falling in love with ‘an “orghaneest”. What was an “orghaneest”?’ David is eventually enlightened by Leo, the Catholic boy next door: ‘A awginis’, yuh mean! Awginis’ – Sure! We got one in our choich. He plays a awgin.’ Impressed by Leo’s fearlessness, he starts coveting Christian paraphernalia and fantasising about his mother’s first love: perhaps Albert isn’t his father at all? Leo, sensing weakness, cajoles David into taking him to visit his Aunt Bertha’s candy store, attracted by talk of Esther and Polly, David’s cousins. ‘I like Jew-goils,’ Leo explains. Bribed with some broken rosary beads, David stands guard while his new friend plays bad with Esther in the cellar beneath the shop.

The book’s climax stages an odd resolution of the tensions that have bedevilled its hero: between Jewish observance and the surrounding Christian culture, between religious visions and secular modernity, and, most of all, between David’s gentle mother and brutal, distant father. With dreamlike inevitability, his transgressions are revealed. Albert reaches operatic heights of murderous wrath. David flees and – repeating a trick learned from some Jew-baiting kids – is zapped to the ground while sticking a milk ladle into the electrified trolley-car tracks, vaguely associating the ensuing short circuit with Isaiah’s ‘angel-coal’. The narrative dissolves into a medley of voices: Yiddish-speaking card players, Irish workmen, a sailor dreaming of fish and chips, an agitator speaking of ‘the day when the red cock crows’. Jewish and Christian religious motifs and bursts of sexual imagery flicker over the scene as David is revived, reborn, in the middle of a crowd of anxious onlookers. His parents set aside their differences when a policeman and doctor bring him home, and even his father has softened by the time his mother puts him to bed, where he feels ‘not pain, not terror, but strangest triumph, strangest acquiescence. One might as well call it sleep. He shut his eyes.’

Call It Sleep has a lot of heavy-handed interior monologue that struggles to anchor the book’s symbolic schemes in David’s consciousness. Albert’s rage and frustration, understandable enough in a downtrodden immigrant to the ‘Golden Land’, are also explained by a melodramatic back story linked to his strange preoccupation with cows. But the book’s fractured descriptions of the New York landscape, heavily influenced by Joyce and Eliot, are resourcefully done. David’s fraught transactions with other children are brilliantly dramatised, and despite the solemn treatment of his terrors and coming of age, there’s more than a touch of black farce in the novel’s stage management, especially during the final catastrophe. Above all, the translated Yiddish dialogue is splendid: ‘almost too splendid’, according to Alfred Kazin, who wrote the introduction to a 1991 edition of the novel, since it makes everyday idioms sound impossibly elevated. ‘Even the fixed word wavers, eh?’ Albert snarls when he thinks he’s caught his wife backtracking. ‘We must cleave to them like mire on a pig,’ Aunt Bertha says while following two strangers round the Metropolitan Museum for fear of getting lost.

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[*] ‘The guy polluting the liver’ sounds more like Alexander Portnoy than anyone in Ulysses, though Roth claimed to find his younger namesake ‘easy to shrug off’. An interviewer also described him as being ‘ferociously resentful of Bellow’s success’.