Henry Roth's last novel, "An American Type"
AN AMERICAN TYPE
By Henry Roth
Norton. 283 pp. $25.95
"An American Type" is the third and final novel from Henry Roth, who for many years looked like he was going to be a one-book wonder. Roth made his name with "Call It Sleep," a vivid portrait of a Jewish childhood spent in the New York slums of the early 20th century. The book sold poorly when it was published in 1934 but received strong reviews and has gone on to be regarded as an essential American novel and, in many critics' and readers' eyes, a masterpiece.
But by the time it became sufficiently recognized to establish Roth as a major writer, he no longer appeared to be writing much of anything. A case of writer's block had set in, one that lasted, it turned out, for decades. Most fans of "Call It Sleep" had long since given up hope of hearing any more from him when, in the 1990s, he surprised the literary world by publishing a massive novel in four volumes, "Mercy of a Rude Stream."
Writer's block is in fact one of the main subjects of this new, posthumous work, whose protagonist, Ira Stigman, is struggling to make some headway on his second novel. Like all of Roth's fiction, "An American Type" is heavily autobiographical. It is probably not quite fair to say that Ira Stigman is Henry Roth, but the similarities are uncanny: "Some promise," Ira thinks. "Hung up on the meat hook of a second novel, but don't tell anybody. Writer of promise. Author of a book, a novel that had won wide critical acclaim, except from the Communist Party, his comrades. That was in 1934. 1934 to 1938. Four years wasted, up the flue."
"Mercy of a Rude Stream" ended with Ira moving in with Edith Welles, an older, wealthy poet and academic who was willing to support his writing career. The beginning of "An American Type" finds him at the Yaddo artists' colony, struggling with his recalcitrant second book and falling in love with a fellow guest, a vibrant and charming pianist identified only as M. (Those familiar with the author's life will know that M represents Muriel Parker, who did indeed meet Roth at Yaddo and spent the rest of her life with him.) His passion for M compels him to break things off with Edith and, for reasons that are not entirely well thought out, leave both her and M behind to embark on a cross-country odyssey in search of financial security.
Accompanied by his domineering and highly unstable friend Bill, a communist who continually rants incoherently about the sins and stupidity of "the boojwasie," Ira spends an interlude in Cincinnati before reaching his intended destination, Los Angeles. He hopes to find work as a screenwriter, but these aspirations are soon dashed. The rest of the book recounts his difficult and at times perilous return journey to New York and what happens on his arrival.
Though there are some interesting bits, and the Depression-era details about hitchhiking and riding the rails evoke a sense of lived history, "An American Type" does not, ultimately, add up to a satisfying novel. The explanation is not hard to find: As New Yorker fiction editor Willing Davidson explains in his "Editor's Afterword," the book was assembled from material extracted from about 1,900 draft pages left by Roth when he died in 1995. "An American Type" is not, then, a Henry Roth novel so much as it is a narrative constructed from his leavings. And the leavings, on the whole, appear not to have been exceptionally rich: There are few memorable sentences or passages here, and many of the individual scenes have the dull awkwardness of a rough draft.
Given a few more good working years, Roth might have reworked this material into a strong final novel. Sadly, this was not to be. "An American Type" will be of interest to fans of the unique two-book wonder that was Henry Roth, but it adds disappointingly little to his literary legacy.
Jollimore is the author of "Tom Thomson in Purgatory," which won the National Book Critics Circle award for poetry for 2006.