The Life of Henry Roth

By Steven G. Kellman

Norton. 371 pp. $25.95

What happened to the Jewish novel?

Answer: It assimilated.

If you were an English major in the '60s or '70s, chances are you took a course in the Jewish novel and read books by Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud and Philip Roth. These days, Bellow's not politically correct enough for many professors, Malamud's largely forgotten, Philip Roth is just a novelist, not a Jewish one, and few of those teaching the dozens of younger novelists who happen to be Jewish would identify them that way.

Besides, as far as classroom focus goes, most of those coming of age in literature these days are women, whether Jewish or Gentile. Students used to read about young Jewish guys on the way up, but Augie March and Alexander Portnoy have been replaced by the heroines of Candace Bushnell, both in books and, thanks to student interest in film and TV, in such forms as the "Sex and the City" series, which gives a whole new meaning to the phrase "on the make." This curricular shift is as it should be, given the current concern with the role of women, even if it minimizes the more parlous place of the Jew in the Western canon (there's no play called "The Desperate Housewife of Venice").

If the chapter in U.S. literary history called The Jewish Novel has closed, Steven G. Kellman brings us back to its strange beginnings in his lucid, highly readable biography of a writer whose life is as peculiar as anything in his fiction. Bellow, Malamud and company needed an ancestor to add gravitas to their mid-century Renaissance, and they found him in Henry Roth, who wrote Call It Sleep in 1934 and then lapsed into six decades of nearly total silence, spending most of those years as a waterfowl farmer in Maine and erupting in his eighties in a volcanic flood of prose that yielded thousands of pages just before his death.

Born Herschel Roth in 1906 in Galicia, a region of Austro-Hungary, the future novelist crossed the Atlantic as a babe in his mother's arms, traveling in steerage as part of the massive Jewish immigration that eventually made New York the capital of the Diaspora. The family moved around New York, spending just four years on the Lower East Side, which would become the cosmos of Call It Sleep. His mother never really learned English, and his father was a failure at making a living and at fatherhood. (Late in life, after Roth married Muriel Parker and had a family of his own, the father described him as "a schmo who had married a shiksa and didn't amount to anything.") An indifferent student, Roth profited from City College of New York's populist admissions policy. But his real literary education came from bohemian friends who introduced him to writers like James Joyce and T.S. Eliot.

The ennui and alienation of Eliot's personae appealed to Roth, and Kellman points out that, in composing Call It Sleep, the novelist took from Joyce the goal of transforming the quotidian into art, the idea for the self-portrait of the artist as a young man and the stream-of-consciousness technique. Call It Sleep tells the story of six years in the life of an immigrant boy named David Schearl just prior to World War I. David is protected by a loving mother, but his increasingly paranoid father can't hold down a job and makes life hell for them all. The squalor Roth depicted offended some critics, though others praised the gritty details as true to life. But in 1934, when unemployment exceeded 20 percent, relatively few readers were interested in throwing their disposable cash at an unknown writer, especially one with so troubling a story to tell, and within two years Call It Sleep was out of print.

As Kellman notes, in those days there was no elaborate infrastructure of teaching appointments, grants and reading tours to sustain writers financially and psychologically. Besides, Roth had always been drawn to the certainty of technical work as a counterbalance to the undependable art of writing; geometry was the only class that didn't bore him in high school, and even after Call It Sleep appeared, he took a course in precision grinding and worked in machine shops all over town. Haunted by the city that had broken his heart, the New York that had served as his model and then turned its back on him, he eventually took his wife and their two young sons to Maine, where they moved into a house without indoor plumbing or electricity, and the once and future novelist became a farmer. Nothing if not diligent, Roth salvaged junkyard materials and built a plant equipped to slaughter and process fowl.

The myth of Roth turning his back on literature is not entirely true, as Kellman points out. During his Maine years, he started and then burned the pages of a new novel and published work in the New Yorker, though fiction editor William Maxwell turned down more stories than he took. Then, improbably, devotees overcame Roth's indifference and saw a paperback edition of Call It Sleep into print in 1964. The New York Times not only published its first review of a paperback but ran it on the cover of the book section. The book became a bestseller 30 years after its first appearance.

Thanks mainly to a devoted young Italian academic named Mario Materassi, who became his translator, champion, editor and confidant for the next 30 years, Roth not only received international acclaim but began to write steadily again, launching a multi-volume series, Mercy of a Rude Stream, which was left unfinished at his death in 1995 at the age of 89. Some belligerent reviewers of the four volumes that made it into print drew blood, notes Kellman, though "most approached Roth with reverence for Call It Sleep."

Throughout his life, Roth was a handful, creating as many problems for others as for himself; he broke abruptly with his advocate Materassi following a silly disagreement over financial arrangements, and he upset his sister Rose late in life by writing graphically of their incestuous relationship as adolescents.

The Mercy of a Rude Stream novels were meant to relate the only story Roth was capable of telling, his own. Now Kellman has told that story masterfully; scarcely a page here doesn't deftly relate a bit of New York history or make a connection to the larger world of literature. Even better, Kellman tells the story in a way that Roth never could: briefly. *

David Kirby teaches English at Florida State University. His next book is "The House on Boulevard St.: New and Selected Poems."

Henry Roth