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Diving Back Into Henry Roth’s Streams of Consciousness

Mercy of a Rude Stream
By Henry Roth
Liveright, 1312 pages, $39.95.

Henry Roth was rediscovered twice.

In 1964, 30 years after the debut of “Call It Sleep,” an enticing new paperback edition and ecstatic praise from Irving Howe on the front page of The New York Times Book Review catapulted Roth’s neglected masterpiece onto bestseller lists. The author — who had renounced the New York literary life to raise and slaughter waterfowl in Maine — was wrenched out of obscurity. In 1994, Roth, the Rip Van Winkle of authors, published his second novel, “A Star Shines Over Mt. Morris Park,” ending the longest writer’s block of any major figure in American literary history. A gap of 60 years separated “Call It Sleep” and “A Star Shines Over Mt. Morris Park.”

A new book by the 88-year-old Roth was the publishing sensation of the year. Jonathan Rosen hailed it in Vanity Fair as “the literary comeback of the century.” The story of how an Ashkenazi T. rex from the Jurassic Age of American Jewish literature was restored to life was widely covered, but reviewers stressed the oddity of the phenomenon more than its artistry, as if echoing Samuel Johnson’s quip about a dog’s walking on his hind legs: “It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”

In fact, what Roth had wrought was more than just a belated second novel. Suffering from rheumatoid arthritis so severe that grasping a pencil was agony, as well as depression so deep he had attempted suicide, the grieving widower managed to tap out about 5,000 manuscript pages on his IBM PC Junior. “A Star Shines Over Mt. Morris Park” would constitute the first volume of a tetralogy whose title, [“Mercy of a Rude Stream,”]) was appropriated from Shakespeare’s “Henry VIII” and whose acronym, MORS, highlights the author’s preoccupation with death. Roth longed for death but was determined to complete his ambitious literary task. Driven by what his narrator calls “that unique, unutterable afflatus of creativity,” he continued writing until October 13, 1995 when, at age 89, his work and life came to an end.

The four installments of “Mercy” were published separately, sequentially. An additional volume, “An American Type,” was carved out of the remaining pages and published in 2010. Roth was still alive when the second volume, “A Diving Rock on the Hudson,” came out in 1995. But he was gone by the time “From Bondage” and “Requiem for Harlem” appeared in print, in 1996 and 1998, respectively. Though it constitutes a fascinating time capsule of blue-collar New York during and after World War I, “A Star Shines Over Mt. Morris Park” is the weakest volume in the tetralogy. After a 60-year hiatus, Roth was still clearing his throat, and Robert Alter complained in The New York Times Book Review that “[w]hat the book lacks is novelistic tension.” Convinced that all there was to say about Roth’s new fiction was that it was an astonishing comeback for an octogenarian who had been missing in action for decades, reviewers did not see any point in repeating themselves. Volumes 2, 3 and 4 did not receive as much attention as the first one.

However, readers who persisted through Volume 2 were shocked to discover that the main character, Ira Stigman, has a sister, Minnie, and that he engages in incest with her. Sex with a cousin, Stella, figures prominently in Volumes 3 and 4. There are many other surprises en route to the final page of “Requiem for Harlem.” The entire four-volume project develops a cumulative power that can be appreciated only if the books are read as what the French call a roman-fleuve, or river novel, i.e. a rude stream that must be allowed to flow in its totality. After Robert Weil, who edited Roth’s final books for St. Martin’s Press, became head of the Liveright imprint at W. W. Norton, he determined to package the entire tetralogy in one volume. Weil acquired the rights from St. Martin’s and now, 20 years after the first appearance of Volume 1, it is possible to experience Roth’s final outpouring as one vast but coherent creation — or to skip Volume 1 and proceed directly to Roth’s richest, most mature art.

Fictionalized autobiography that thinly disguises the names of the writer’s family members, upon which its characters are based (Roth’s wife Muriel becomes M., his sons Jeremy and Hugh become Jess and Herschel, and his mentor and lover Eda Lou Walton becomes Edith Welles), “Mercy of a Rude Stream” fulfills what Walt Whitman called his own “attempt, from first to last, to put a Person, a human being (myself, in the latter half of the Nineteenth Century, in America,) freely, fully and truly on record.” For Roth, that person is named Ira Stigman, and if he is a reincarnation of young David Schearl from “Call It Sleep,” he is also Roth himself. The autobiographical project is unparalleled in contemporary literature except perhaps for the much-lauded six volumes of Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard’s “My Struggle.” Roth’s text, which recounts Stigman’s life to the moment in 1928 when he departs from his parents’ Harlem apartment to move in with Edith Welles in Greenwich Village, is frequently interrupted by the octogenarian Stigman’s commentary on his earlier self. “Mercy” is a continuing conversation between past and present about past and present.

Tormented by “a canker in the soul,” Stigman — a man burdened by the stigma of incest, the theft of a fountain pen, and a myriad of other human failures — writes a testament of self-loathing that, as he faces imminent death, manages to redeem life. The prospect of Israel’s annihilation in 1967 shocks Stigman, “a Jew who doesn’t give a damn about religion,” into the realization that, in severing ties to the Jewish community, he has “abandoned his richest, most plangent creative source.” Henceforth he will draw upon the fullness of his identity as a Jewish immigrant in America to “commute the dross of the mundane and the sordid into literary treasure.”

It is time to rediscover the literary treasure that was Henry Roth. Again.

Steven G. Kellman is the author of “Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth” published by W. W. Norton (2005).

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