Call it awakening: Henry Roth continues his autobiographical story

February 27, 1994|By Kenneth Turan | Kenneth Turan,Los Angeles Times

Title: "Mercy of a Rude Stream: A Star Shines Over Mt. Morris Park"

Author: Henry Roth

Publisher: St. Martin's

Length, price: 290 pages, $23 "Literary history and the present are dark with silences," Tillie Olsen wrote in her remarkable book on writers who ceased to write. "These are not natural silences, that necessary time for renewal, lying fallow, gestation, in the natural cycle of creation. The silences I speak of here are unnatural; the unnatural thwarting of what struggles to come into being, but cannot."

Though he is mentioned only once in Ms. Olsen's "Silences," and in a footnote at that, Henry Roth's literary muteness has been formidable, as monumental in its own way as the reputation of his first novel, the legendary "Call It Sleep."

Published in 1934, that autobiographical look at a painful coming of age among the tenements of New York's Lower East Side did not come into its own until 1964. In an often-recounted bit of publishing lore, its mass-market edition became the first paperback to be reviewed on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. It went on to sell 1.2 million copies in 33 printings.

Extraordinary in its treatment of childhood and the family, the immigrant experience in general and the Jewish-American situation in particular, "Call It Sleep" outwits all superlatives in the intensity of its emotional impact and its closeness to the rawness of truth. To read Mr. Roth's densely written, poetic account of the childhood of David Schearl is to wonder how he dredged this kind of intimate material out of himself -- and to hunger for more.

For 60 years, however, there was no more. Although Mr. Roth was well-reviewed by the mainstream press, he was disheartened by attacks on his book by doctrinaire publications allied with the Communist Party he passionately believed in.

When left-wing voices such as the Daily Worker and the New Masses complained that he had betrayed his proletarian experience by using it "as material for introspective and febrile novels" instead of a clarion call for mass action, Mr. Roth tried to atone with a book about a Midwestern union man. He was unable to finish it, and gradually retreated from writing. He moved to New England and took a series of impermanent jobs, including serving as an orderly in a mental institution and working as a waterfowl farmer, and entered into a literary silence so nearly complete many readers thought him dead.

Now, 60 years after "Call It Sleep's" publication, comes "Mercy of a Rude Stream," subtitled "A Star Shines Over Mt. Morris Park." It's the first of a projected six-volume series of novels that Mr. Roth, age 87 and now living in New Mexico, has been working on since 1979.

Although one inevitably approaches this kind of literary second childhood with a certain amount of trepidation, the news is remarkably good. For what Mr. Roth has produced here is not only an evocative continuation of his autobiographical story but also a meditation on that enormous and profoundly troubling "literary desolation" (his own phrase) that turns out to have been as great a trauma to Mr. Roth as his agonizing childhood years.

A continuation of "Call It Sleep," yes, but a carbon copy, no. More has been changed here than just the name of the novel's protagonist, now called Ira Stigman. The pace and tone are more leisurely and episodic, as much memoir as novel, befitting the DTC author's venerable age. Most radical of all, a second voice has been added, nominally the aged Ira's but sounding very much like Mr. Roth, the voice of an old writer sharing thoughts with a word processor he calls Ecclesias.

The narrative line picks up in 1914, almost exactly where the first novel left off, with a pair of momentous events in 8-year-old Ira's life. First, his maternal grandparents and four of his mother's brothers and sisters arrive in New York from the old country. More important, changing his world as completely as only a child's world can change, the Stigman family moves way uptown from the familiar, largely Jewish Lower East Side to the more affordable, more Gentile precincts of Harlem.

"Mercy" follows Ira and his family for six tumultuous years. Once again we meet the boy's mismatched parents, the sad, uncertain, oversized mother who above all else "craved a window to lean out of and contemplate the changing scene below," and his bitter, rail-thin father, a doomed entrepreneur, "unstable and violent," who ferociously blamed everyone but himself for "his malign fate."

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