Henry Roth, Call It Sleep (Avon, 1934)
[originally posted 16May2000]
Final tally: three months and eight days.
I quite literally cannot remember the last time it took me so long to get through a book (unless you count the monumentally horrendous Children of Dune—fourteen years and counting, and one of these days I WILL read the last fifty pages), but I’m thinking you’d have to go back to my college days and the long, insufferable, badly-written texts therein.
According to the front of this novel, Alfred Kazin says it’s “one of the greatest American psychological novels ever written.” Either I or Kazin, or perhaps both of us, has no idea what a “psychological novel” is. I’m betting it’s me, and so I’ve jettisoned my ideas of whatever that nebulous term means, but I’m no closer to figuring it out now that I’ve turned the last page on this monster. Not that it was a completely bad novel. The reason I kept reading is because, despite the awful, unreadable dialect and the often glacial pace, every time I picked it up I did get absorbed in the life of eight-year-old David Schearl for a while. And, about a hundred pages form the end, the book really took off. It’s too bad there had to be three hundred twenty-odd pages of setup to get to that point.
Call It Sleep is the coming-of-age tale of David Schearl, who’s growing up in depression-era Brooklyn. He’s Jewish, though that has very little effect on his life for the first half of the book (after which his father inexplicably decides that David “should be a better Jew than I” and sends him off to cheder); David experiences the same kinds of coming-of-age rituals as do the rest of us, though at a somewhat early age. There’s really nothing overly special about his life until he meets, and befriends, a non-Jew named Leo. Again, unfortunately, there’s a whole lot of slow, uninteresting setup beforehand.
I’m sure that when this book was published, it was scandalous. Everything from hints of sex between children to foulmouthed Irish gashouse workers, and there’s quite a bit in between the two. Of course, there’s a lot less scandal today when someone in a book says the F-word (especially in dialect, so the nanny filter doesn’t catch it), and I’m pretty sure we’ve all realized that kids experiment with sex. So perhaps there was more in those first three hundred or so pages to titillate the readers back then. Doesn’t hold up now.
Would be worth reading in a revised edition, with a good deal of work on the dialogue (which makes Huck Finn look like The Leatherstocking Tales). Otherwise, it’s probably not worth the good deal of time you’d have to spend to find a copy these days. **