Call It Sleep
by Henry Roth
1934 – 446 pages
rating – 10 / classic 20th century
(read and listened)
I wanted to revisit Call It Sleep (I’d already read The Magus 3 times) to see if it stood the test of time for me – personally. So I nominated it for the Modern Fiction group where it was chosen, and this time I read with both ears and eyes, (audio and Kindle).
The narrative tells the story of David Schearl, a small frightened immigrant Jewish boy in the early 20th century – maybe 1910-1915. He and his parents are new immigrants from Austria where life was getting a bit tougher. His mother, whom he loves dearly, tries very hard to be good in every way but she has secrets. She’s very attached to her son, an only child.
Meanwhile David’s father is a difficult man in many ways (we’d send him to anger management classes today) and has a hard time keeping a job in his trade as a printer and although working as a milkman is somewhat better, the Lower East Side of New York in those days was a rough place.
Over the span of a few years David starts going to school and takes Hebrew lessons. He’s very bright but also very attached to his mother, probably because of his father’s dangerous attitude and behavior. The streets are full of what feels like authentically drawn ethnic groups, Italians, Irish, Hungarians, most of whom are Catholics but his own building seems safe enough. The story mirrors that of the author in some ways.
He memorizes his address – 749 9th street – in the Lower East Side, near Alphabet City.
The tale is told primarily from David’s point of view so fear is a a huge theme. David is afraid of almost everything and because he’s very bright he’s curious and thinks about these things quite a lot – some things haunt him. There’s his father, the cellar, hot coals, the neighborhood bullies, sex and girls, his mother, getting lost, the violence of the streets. But that’s just one theme.
Second, the language Roth uses to convey the sense of the streets in New York at the time runs the gamut from Yiddish to Irish and Italian accents along with the native languages of these people, mostly kids. This falls in line with the fully realistically presented setting. This made for great listening but there were some parts toward the end which needed the text to follow the chattering of the crowd overlapping with David’s distressed thoughts.
Third, the overarching plot is masterfully developed with increasing tension as David gets involved in more and more dangerous adventures, makes dubious friends, escapes and continues a couple of major issues like his father’s disturbing rage.
Fourth, the narrator’s sections are beautifully rendered with interesting and appropriate vocabulary, metaphors and other tropes. Roth is what I wanted Saul Bellow to be.
And fifth, the themes are woven into the fabric of a compelling tale, they’re not spelled out anywhere – they’re shown. Fear, violence, secrets and a lack of understanding – in all languages – which translates into racism and other issues.
Roth was born in 1906 in the Ukraine the only child of Jewish parents. His father immigrated shortly after Henry was born and he and his mother joined him about a year later. They first lived in Brownsville in Brooklyn but then moved to the Lower East Side in Manhattan.
Fwiw, 1 penny was worth about 2.60 dollars of 2016 value. A pair of roller skates which might cost about $4.50 in 1905 which would be about $117 in 2016.
The Other In Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep