The Life and Death of a Male Body
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…)