Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Call it Sleep by Henry Roth

She shrugged, not at him, but at herself.  "This is the way of the years, my son.  Each new one shows you both hands this way--" She held out her two closed hands before her.  "Here, choose!"  And opening them.  "And they're both empty.  We do what we can.  But the bitter thing is to strive--and save none but yourself."  She rose, went to the stove, lifted the lid and peered down into the glow that stained the wide brow, the flat cheek.  "Eat we must though."

Few books capture the feel of city life as aptly as Call it Sleep.  Frequently, clogged by the torturous transcription of various dialects, scattered, schizophrenic imagery, and long stretches of stream-of-consciousness, it can be a mess.  Too much of a mess, sometimes, especially when those aspects collide.  But as an impressionistic reproduction of how the slum tenements of early 20th century New York would seem to the nine-year old protagonist, Davy Schearl, it succeeds tremendously.  And sometimes, moments of stark lucidity shine out:

And suddenly there was space even between the hedges of stone and suddenly there was quiet even in the fret of cities.  And there was time, inviolable even to terror, time to watch the smudged and cluttered russet in the west beckon to the night to cover it.  A moment, but a moment only, then he whimpered and ran.

But where it exceeds the most is as a depiction of Davy's psychology, and the terror wrought on it by the wildness of city life and his antagonistic relationship with his father.  I have a soft spot for books that portray childhood as something horrible, because I think that it often is, and our modern conception of childhood as a pastel-colored idyll is misleading.  Besides being basically loathed by his father, who suspects him (probably accurately) of being another man's child, city life for Davy is a series of disasters: His first sexual experience, at the command of a crippled girl:

"Yuh know w'ea babies comm from?"


"From de knish."


"Between de leg.  Who puts id in is de poppa.  De poppa's god de petzel.  Yaw de poppa."  She giggled stealthily and took his hand.

Or getting lost, and ending up in a police station fearing a complete separation from home.  Or later on, when a Polish boy whom he admires tricks him into helping him sexually assault Davy's own cousin in exchange for a set of broken rosary beads.

The rosary beads are characteristic of Davy's response to his existence, a yearning for a religious vision beyond the ugliness and the "fret of cities."  To Davy, the rosary beads are as mystical as the vision of Isaiah described in his cheder classes.  Call it Sleep reminds me of Equus, in that they both depict the syncretic, idiosyncratic religious impulse of a boy who blurs the line between mysticism and his personal existence.  For Davy, he finally gets his vision--after touching the third rail of a railroad track--but it involves seeing his own father lifted on a cross.

I wish I liked that section.  But Roth chooses to break Davy's vision into fragments, cutting in at the middle of words, to splice in the dialogue of those around him and the onomatopoetic sounds of machinery.  Roth wants us to see how Davy is both in and out of consciousness, but it doesn't work; it's too confusing.  What should be an affecting end to a powerful novel just made me wish for it to end.

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