BOUNDARIES OF LOVE
and Other Stories
By Henry H. Roth
British American Publishing. 207 pp. $17.95
One indication of the richness of this exhilarating collection of 19 stories by Henry H. Roth is the variety of ways that people in trouble find for saving themselves. An unlikely few do it through baseball. In a slangy, likable story called "The Cinderella Kid," an orphan escapes from a loveless childhood with the help of a good right arm. In the more somber "Beginnings," it is the late 1940s and a 10-year-old boy is trapped in a Brooklyn apartment with an anguished, passive father and a delusionary mother who spends her days sobbing. The boy concocts elaborate fantasies in which the Dodgers play their games in his locked room. On one rare, bright day the three attend a real game at Ebbets Field and the mother's craziness diminishes to the point where she can show her deepest feelings for her son and he can bask; "for an instant they are clearly a pair, a couple" as she talks of baseball easily, lovingly.
For others, love of language is a route to safety. In "Joe's Dead," the mother of an 11-year-old girl tries psychiatry to heal the wounds inflicted on the child by her alcoholic father's suicide. The therapy probably helps, but it's clear that it's literature that will make this canny kid whole. Her mother "kept muttering that reading wasn't healthy and I'd need glasses soon. I ignored her and kept reading 'Jane Eyre.' Would my reading scare her so much if I told her I loved different ways writers describe how the sun set and rose? And how great dialogue makes you see the faces of the people that are talking." Even the Cinderella Kid leaves baseball behind when he discovers literature and the love of a literate good woman. (The venality of pro baseball enters into it too; Roth, a native Brooklynite, must have been among those for whom the treachery of the Dodgers' move to California came as a bleak, cosmic revelation.)
All of these stories, as the title "Boundaries of Love" suggests, concern love in one guise or another, and among the best are those where the subject is met head-on. In "This Time," a middle-aged man with a failed marriage is in a hospital room wondering, "Would he die or would this fanciful cancer attack, retreat, hit and run, and mug him for a dozen more rotting years?" A friendship is formed with a woman abandoned by her lover after her double mastectomy -- she walks the hospital corridors constantly, relearning balance -- and quite startlingly this friendship turns to sexual love. When difficulties come, the man apologizes: "I want to be at my best for you." He is told, "Oh, it's too late for that, don't you see. And it doesn't matter at all." "This Time" is about as jolting and lovely a story as ever opened a collection.
Not all of Roth's characters love well or successfully. In the mordant "Happy in Ohio," a young academic litterateur who uses women casually is left in the cold when his ex-wife and his two girlfriends discover the warmth and value of their companionship with one another.
The eerily funny "Mal" is about a man defeated by family life who spends his love on that peculiarly American object of devotion, his lawn. Until, that is, the day when "out of nowhere a car appeared and headed straight for Mal Bennett. 'Long time, no see,' the engine roared, and the clanging muffler agreed. The car embraced Mal, really soul-kissed him, then said 'Farewell,' tossing him back onto his beloved, sacred lawn." Like some sterner John Cheever, Roth is not particularly kind to people whose love he believes to be misguided or misspent, and his ways of disposing of them are sometimes shocking.
Among the most memorable stories in the collection are those about a family with a mentally ill mother. (The same family appears several times in varying permutations; Roth's purpose, if any, for the variations is unclear.) Sometimes we see the family through the cold ache of the son's point of view. He's the boy in "Beginnings," as well as the distant grown man in "In Ruined Houses," where the son looks after his mother with her "scrambled reveries" while the father is in the hospital for a few days. There's a heartbreaking brief scene involving a washing machine. The father, hopelessly in love with his mad wife even after decades, has fought to have the appliance installed in their Manhattan apartment, and it's one of the few things that brings his wife peace and a kind of lucidity. "Listen, it's working now," she tells her son. "That's such a beautiful song. Nothing except the American flag is a more beautiful sight than fresh laundry." For the son, the sounds of the ancient machine chugging away in the kitchen "were like water hitting a sea wall. It was like vacation time. For a while it was not a ruined place." In the end, this deeply hurt man leaves "without saying a word ... During the trip home, I vowed to call him more often and visit her more frequently, but I never did."
In these haunting stories, Roth comes across as a wonderfully original writer about love and sex and family life. A lot of this book is distinctly urban Jewish American in its rhythms and flavors; in a single story, or even paragraph, Roth can be both stark and lyrical, blunt and warm, brooding and large-spirited, and it all feels just right. For readers unfamiliar with Roth -- not to be confused with the H.-less Henry Roth, author of "Call It Sleep" -- "Boundaries of Love" should serve as a fine introduction to this gifted writer.
The reviewer writes frequently about contemporary fiction.