Henry Roth
January 12, 2011 11:57 AM   Subscribe

Henry Roth had one of the most anomalous careers in modern letters: a brilliant novel at age twenty-eight, the incomparable Call It Sleep, lost for thirty years but never quite forgotten, then a torrent of words let loose in his seventies and eighties. ... Roth continued to resist any single explanation for his catastrophic writer's block, but it became evident that it was the incest, and the self-loathing that accompanied it, that threw the biggest roadblock across his path.

Roth died Oct. 13, 1995, having written his epic in great pain from rheumatoid arthritis, often unable to bear touching his keyboard. When I interviewed him the year before, his twisted fingers were so inflamed that he could barely hold a pen to inscribe a book. The conditions of its composition, as well as the unflinching treatment of its subject, make Mercy of a Rude Stream one of the strangest and most disquieting performances in American letters.
posted by Joe Beese (7 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
He didn't fill in some of those intervening writers-block decades writing under the pen name V.C. Andrews, did he?

posted by Halloween Jack at 12:13 PM on January 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Mercy of a Rude Stream is the most disappointing book I have ever read. Ever.

Something it has in common with two others of the most disappointing books I have ever read (Three Days Before the Shooting... by Ralph Ellison and Miss McIntosh, My Darling by Marguerite Young) is that he took a bazillion years to write it.

On the other hand, the same thing is true of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz and Ship of Fools by Katherine Anne Porter, so I guess you never know.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:19 PM on January 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

I picked up "Call It Sleep" from a workplace's book swap shelf, some thirty years ago.

It knocked me the fuck out. I'd never heard of Roth before but I was so impressed with that book I never returned it. First and only time I've done something like that. I still have it on my bookshelf and I love to force it on people. No idea why it isn't better known; it's bloody marvellous.
posted by Decani at 12:29 PM on January 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

"Call It Sleep" is an amazing work and one of the best novels on the immigrant experience I've read. However, I agree with Sidhedevil that "Mercy" was terrible and I never even finished the first book.
posted by Falconetti at 1:35 PM on January 12, 2011

Mercy series not great but a fine narrative from a guy who fills in what he had done over the years and why the "problem." I have read all he wrote in that extended series and did
find it well worth the read. No clever post this or that stuff, and, oddly, a bit of that saved for his ending of Sleep, something clearly via Joyce and Faulker, and it worked .
What is fascinating about Sleep is that the stereotype of the "soft" Jewish Father and the strong domineering Mother is reversed, as indeed it was for those arriving here. Only later, with some success in mixing into America did the woman then take on the role she has since had--example:JAP etc This Roth had the immigrant experience right.
posted by Postroad at 2:18 PM on January 12, 2011

Haven't read "Call It Sleep" in years, but strangely found myself thinking about this fantastic book just yesterday. Incredible author. Thanks for the great post.
posted by tiger yang at 3:54 PM on January 12, 2011

I'm always getting movies from Netflix that have gotten rapturous reviews from threadloads of Mefites, watched them, and then said "That's the last time I take a recommendation from anonymous internet people!". However, "Call it Sleep" is an amazing book.


Anonymous internet person.
posted by acrasis at 4:49 PM on January 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

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