The Life and Death of a Male Body

September 29, 2006 | ,

By Philip Roth
Houghton Mifflin. 182 pages. $24.

Half a century ago, when he was all of 21 years old, Philip Roth was already thinking seriously about death. In 1954, he published a short story called “The Day It Snowed,” about a small boy, Sydney, who is disturbed to discover that first his aunt, then his uncle, and finally his stepfather have all “disappeared.” So his mother tells him, at least, hoping to spare him grief; in each case, while the family heads to the cemetery, Sydney’s left home alone. Confused, the boy takes to the streets, hoping to locate the missing persons on his own, and before long he receives a brutal education as to the nature of mortality.

The story is no masterpiece—Roth, barely out of college, had not yet developed the uncanny confidence of Goodbye, Columbus—but already, in embryonic form, it enacts a central principle of the author’s mature work. In two dozen or so extraordinary novels he has written since, Roth has often employed much the same tactic: he has sought out innocence, uncovered naivety, and laid bare the truth, no matter how much it hurts. (more…)

A Jew on the Street

September 12, 2006 | , ,

East River
By Sholem Asch

444 pages. Kessinger. $36.95.

Every movement needs a slogan, and the Jewish Enlightenment—the idea, simply put, that Jewish traditions and modern western culture can coexist harmoniously—finds its tersest expression in Y. L. Gordon’s pithy 1863 advice: “Be a man on the street and a Jew in your tent.” The problem with this prescription, of course, is that while Jews are out there in the street being men, they tend to encounter women. One thing leads to another, a man invites a woman back to his tent for a nightcap, she agrees—and all of a sudden, Cinderella-like, the man transforms back into a Jew and the woman into a dreaded shiksa. Much hand-wringing, and occasional violence, ensues. (more…)