The Skinless Novelist

Are editors polishing away Henry Roth’s neurotic genius?

I can’t think of another novelist as skinless as Henry Roth. The author of Call It Sleep (1934), a triumphantly bruised account of a greenhorn’s childhood on the Lower East Side, was a shy man, Galician-born, who never developed the hide that would have protected him against fame and its expectations. Instead of publishing a second novel, he fell more or less silent. When he managed to write again after 50 years of poverty and anonymity, he released a stream of confessional narrative that feels like it built up during a lifetime of being rubbed raw. Self-revelation, for Roth, was a matter of compulsion, not policy. Had he been cannier, savvier, a better career manager, he would have cleaned up these late-in-life effusions before the machinery of posthumous literary reputation went to work cleaning them up for him.

The first four volumes extracted by an editor from that flow were published as Mercy of a Rude Stream. Roth saw, and was pleased with, three of the volumes, though he lived to see only two published. The third, and a fourth volume he never saw, appeared after Roth’s death in 1995 at the age of 89. The quartet recounts in barely fictionalized form the story of Roth’s youth, from the age of 8 till the age of 19, most of it spent in a hostile, mostly Irish Harlem. Names are all that Roth changed, and he barely changed those. Here, under the pseudonym Ira Stigman—the name seems almost to form the sentence, I are a stigma,or maybe astigma-man—we have Roth the mama’s boy shrinking from Jew-baiting street toughs; Roth the delivery boy shuttling embarrassed between his bewildered, barely functional parents and the gleaming goyishe world; Roth the envious purloiner of his wealthier classmates’ fountain pens; Roth the self-castigating but compulsive seducer of first his sister, then his cousin; Roth the bumbling squire of a much older professor of poetry at New York University. Whatever the guise, the Roth beneath it remains the same: self-absorbed, ashamed, a shlemiel.

There’s something flesh-crawling about being in the presence of so much self-loathing, and it’s particularly unsettling when the self-loather trumpets his humiliations. This, I have always thought, is why the majority of publishers and critics have dismissed the work of Roth’s old age as boring, squalid, shapeless, devoid of the artistry that made his first novel a classic.

Squalid and shapeless it can be; boring and artless it is not. We may not always know where Roth is going, but we know that his descriptions and dialogue feel ripped from the gut, as if his skinlessness deprived him of the usual filters. Now another slice of Roth’s life has been culled from the heap and published as An American Type, and we are reminded again of just how alive his writing is and how acute an observer he was. Roth recreates with remarkable immediacy—all the more so given that he was looking back after half a century—both the excitement and the degradation of bohemian life during the Great Depression, at least as he stumbled through it, a quintessentially picaresque figure, forever insecure, characterologically incapable of seizing the main chance.

It is 11 years since the college-age Ira has left Harlem and moved into a Greenwich Village apartment with his mentor and patron, the poetry professor Edith. He has published his acclaimed novel and begun to develop writer’s block. During a stay in the artist’s colony Yaddo, he meets M., a tall, blond pianist and composer whose gentle manner and disciplined artistry seem to him to incarnate the best of Americanness. Naturally, he feels unworthy of her: “Hers was an inherent nobility, hers all the virtues and amenities of breeding and tradition. What the hell would she want him for, or want with him?” To be with M., he must end his financial dependence on Edith, but such is Edith’s hold on him that he can do that only if he leaves New York altogether. How will he support himself? By becoming a screenwriter in Hollywood, of course. “You’re the most unfitted person for Hollywood I have ever known,” Edith observes, bitterly but accurately.

What follows is a dive into the extinguishing reality of American pennilessness. Ira inches across the country in a run-down Ford Model A, accompanied by Bill, an illiterate Communist whom Ira, during a proletarian-worshipping phase, had tried and failed to make the hero of a second novel. On the road, Bill reveals himself to be a blowhard and bully, while Ira reverts to masochistic type, cowed and disgusted by how easily intimidated he is. Edith is right about Hollywood. Ira drops off his novel at a theatrical agency whose Jewish partners gleam with American politesse and “the alchemy of expensive garb.” But when he returns on the appointed day,

his reception was stripped of all punctilio; it was Jewish, or squeamish, or both. They wanted nothing to do with the book and could scarcely conceal their aversion. They both seemed pained, almost stiff with alarm, as if their interests were threatened by the book on the elaborately bracketed desk. They wanted the taint removed as soon as possible.

This is visceral stuff, unflinching in its anatomy of ignominy, particularly if that ignominy happens to be Roth’s. Given that he writes like a man doubled over from a blow to the stomach, it must be said that Roth does an impressive job of taking in what goes on around him. At its best, his prose has a manic sketchiness, an observational shorthand, that feels as intimate as thought yet has the power to startle back to life a poignant variety of vanished things. There are the Dobos-torte-like layers of Ira’s immigrant self-doubt, but also the weird quackery of a small-town barber (he tries to convince Ira he has “pore worms”) and the intestinal workings of Ira’s uncle’s greasy-spoon cafe: “The small kitchen was hot and close, the walls brown as a roach, and humid. Ira watched him while he filled a couple of orders, fingering the meatballs and positioning the pork chops on the plate. ‘What do you think they do at the Waldorf?’ he replied to Ira’s unspoken question. ‘Different?’ ”

Another pleasure is eavesdropping on Ira’s ruminations on his writing, which can give you some inkling of method underneath the maddening sprawl. Rocking ungently on some sharp steel bars covering the floor of the refrigerator car of a freight train, Ira lets his familiar mix of self-recrimination and grandiosity resolve itself into a free-verse nursery rhyme, beaten out to the rhythm of the tracks. It seems to add up to a literary credo: “Come to nort, all abort … sternly bring your faculties to a focus by composing an autobiography, freely associative … but governed by implicit rules of narration … augment suspense toward a climax … a climax that would exclude present distress.”

If you know anything about Roth’s subsequent life, you know that there would be no excluding of distress, and no real climax either. He and M. (Muriel Parker, who became his wife) would have children, move to Maine, and subside into an even more devastating, because more rural, poverty. An American Type does have a climax, Ira and M.’s marriage. This was put in place not by Roth but by the volume’s editor, a young fiction editor at TheNew Yorker named Willing Davidson, who culled from a 1,900-page manuscript a work that feels very much like a novel. According to an afterword, he mostly put the events back into chronological order and cut out most of the material about Roth’s later life.

All this reshaping was skillfully done—Davidson wields a sharper scalpel than the editor of Mercy did, and the prose in An American Type reads more cleanly as a result—and yet this volume raises anew the questions that, 15 years after Roth’s death, are starting to become urgent: Do Roth’s confessions have an internal integrity that is getting lost as pieces continue to be sliced off and honed and brought out as “novels” and “stories”? Is it utterly impossible that he came up with a new form of autobiography, one that was “freely associative” and had “implicit rules of narration”? It’s worth noting that the same batch of material Davidson has drawn on for An American Type yielded two excerpts in The New Yorker, and that they read like the work of a completely different writer. The New Yorker Roth is a much perkier, wittier fellow, exactly the sort of NewYorker author Roth dreamed of being and on a very few occasions was able to be. What does the variation in tone among all these “novels” and “stories” tell us about Roth, exactly, other than that his prose is malleable and susceptible to “improvement”?

Maybe it’s just that Roth’s haplessness arouses my protectiveness, but I can’t help bristling at these repeated attempts to impose a conventional morphology on an artist who seems to have been determined to eschew one. Not having access to the manuscripts, I can’t tell you whether Roth succeeded in what he set out to do. But I can pass along some hints that Roth drops about what he thinks he’s up to. Or, to be more precise, what he isn’t up to. He isn’t writing a finely wrought, Joycean novel like Call It Sleep. As he tells us in Mercy, he has turned against T.S. Eliot and Joyce, the dominant influences of his youth, particularly the character of Leopold Bloom, whom he denounces as a deracinated Jew. Roth isn’t writing anything that would aesthetize and mythologize the petty miseries of his childhood, as he did in Call It Sleep.

And he is not selling his soul to the literary world. This is one of the dominant themes of An American Type. Roth had tried to rebel against his literary-insider mistress and his own seemingly unearned success by becoming a Communist, but the propaganda the Communists prompted him to produce was even more intolerable to him than whatever he felt guilty of in Call It Sleep. (In real life, Roth burned the manuscript of the novel that glorified a character like Bill.) He further refused, or was unable, to craft the kind of plot-driven, marketable prose that would have earned him a living. Or so we deduce from scenes in American Type involving an agent named Virginia N., who tells Ira he’s got to come “to the point” and leave “sensibility out of the picture.” Ira muses: “She discarded the life for the scheme. The scheme Ira had never mastered; he thought he had a sense of life.”

Roth, in short, was a literary refusnik. So what did all that rejecting leave him with? Very little but his “sense of life”—but that he had to a degree most writers can only dream of, and few could tolerate. I imagine (though I don’t know) that that “sense of life” is what he meant to leave us with. I very much doubt Roth would have had American Type climax with a marriage. * Indeed, Davidson tells us he didn’t. Roth may have had a problem with the very idea of endings. In Mercy of a Rude Stream he quotes more than once a Talmudic saying to the effect that you are not required to finish, but you are not allowed to stop, either. Life, unlike fiction, has neither crisp beginnings nor redemptive endings. It endures, as Roth did, until it doesn’t. The saddest ending of all would be if Roth’s amorphous, neurotic, miraculously unquashable “sense of life” was precisely what got polished out of his work.

Correction, June 10, 2010: This article originally implied that the novel American Type ends with a marriage. That’s the novel’s climax, but it ends with the death of Ira’s wife and Ira’s determination to keep writing.

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