An American Type
W.W. Norton: 284 pp., $25.95
All novelists, despite the façade of fiction, are ultimately writing variations of their own stories. Surely their characters provide necessary cover, but there’s always autobiography and memoir yelping in the background — “it’s all true, the names have changed, but the emotions and memories are dead-on.”
Henry Roth, the first of the great Jewish American novelists of the 20th century, never concealed the background that shaped him or the emotions that often left him guilt-ridden and paralyzed. His first book, “Call It Sleep,” widely regarded as a masterpiece and perhaps America’s first modernist novel, is also a testament to the squalid, hermetic Jewish life of New York City’s Lower East Side, where Roth spent his immigrant childhood.
No other Roth novel appeared for 60 years as he stayed clear of Manhattan and took on a series of improbably menial jobs for a man of letters. For half that time Roth experienced the kind of writer’s block that was as impenetrable as the Soviet bloc, which is more than a mere metaphor since Roth flirted and ultimately became disillusioned with communism.
In the mid-1990s, Roth roared back with four novels—culled from the vast number of pages left after his death—that largely picked up from where “Call It Sleep” left off. Now, however, the perspective was from an old writer looking back on his misspent life. The more blatantly autobiographical Ira Stigman replaced the child David Shearl of “Call It Sleep.” The four books traced Ira leaving the Lower East Side and moving to Harlem with his family, attending City College, revealing a dark, shameful secret and, finally, joining a new family in the company of an older NYU English professor, Edith Welles. She nurtured his writing and his body, and introduced him to the intellectual and aesthetic fervor of Greenwich Village.
Now the fifth novel from the batch of Roth writings that resurfaced more than 15 years ago arrives, aptly titled “An American Type,” which all immigrants, sensitive to what the natives look like, quickly come to know.
The novel begins with Ira, having published his first novel to acclaim and now suddenly unable to write a second one, seeking fellowship at the summer artist colony Yaddo. While there he falls in love with a blond pianist named M — a patrician no less, the most authentic of all American types. Now Ira has to figure out how to leave Edith, the woman who refined and liberated this Jewish immigrant from his abusive childhood and made him a writer too.
The problem is: No Henry Roth alter ego is any good at self-reliance, courage — or decision-making, for that matter. To be a Henry Roth protagonist means never straying from the sheltering embrace that comforts a Jewish mama’s boy. “And he shook his head at himself, at the spectacle of a man thirty-three years of age, without a vestige of economic independence, or even the necessary faith in his aptitude or ability to achieve it, or the self-confidence that comes with having done so for awhile, at least once in his life.”
Rather than make a decision, Ira decides to head to California — “On the Road” with a nervous Jew in the middle of the Depression — as a way of separating himself from Edith: Perhaps he’s also in search of more American types who might inspire a future novel. And it is at this point that “An American Type” displays all the lyrical, observational gifts that made Roth such a force as a modernist, and even post-modernist, writer. Not unlike James Joyce, to whom he had often been compared, Roth showcases his mimicry of the American soundtrack.
“An American Type” reads like a kaleidoscopic tour of the voice and soul of America, a Manifest Destiny so rich with discoveries and disparities that Tocqueville himself would have come away dazzled by Roth’s modernist take on the wandering Jew.
Ira spends time in seedy SROs and in his travels meets a disabled but bullying working-class communist, a sexually starved Arkansas hillbilly, penniless hitchhikers, a community of hobos riding the rails, truck drivers and Texas anti-Semites, Jewish relatives who operate a coffee shop and a young African American whose misfortune extends to an unfortunate accident with an elevated subway.
No longer aspiring to “Ulysses,” Roth decided to write his own “Grapes of Jewish Wrath.”
And we see Roth at his self-lacerating best. Unlike the other Roth (Philip), the one American-born and Newark-raised and who radiates chutzpah and ego, Henry Roth — and his alter egos — may have been the truer self-hating Jew, not because he despised Jews or Judaism but rather because he hated himself. Whether because of the shame of his immigrant beginnings or the sordid sex he (Henry, Ira or both?) carried on with his sister and cousin, Roth, as both narrator and protagonist, epitomized the self-disclosure and grotesque portraiture that only a novel can best reveal.
And with this, perhaps his last novel (with Roth, who died in 1995, you never know), he leaves behind a glorious, evocative, literary novel for the ages, a bookend to the earlier David Shearl and Ira Stigman sagas — the writer, now wretched and infirm with age, looking back with love, loss and regret and also appreciation for those who gave him cause to unleash all that honesty.
Fiction writers all lie for a living. Henry Roth was one of literature’s grandest truth-tellers.
Rosenbaum, a novelist, essayist and law professor, is the author of “Elijah Visible.”