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Sabbath's Theater

Philip Roth

Houghton Mifflin, [price]

by Doron Weber

On the last page of Sabbath's Theater, Philip Roth's 21st book and arguably his finest novel, the obscene protagonist Morris "Mickey" Sabbath pleads for death. A self-described "whoremonger, seducer, sodomist, abuser of women, destroyer of morals, ensnarer of youth," Sabbath knows he has violated every code of decency. With the premature death of a beloved mistress, Drenka, the unhappily married 64-year-old failed puppeteer seems to have little left to live for. In fact, for close to 450 pages, Sabbath has been planning his own demise. Now he hopes that Drenka's furious son, a state trooper named Mathew who has caught him desecrating her grave, will finish him off. When Mathew refuses, Sabbath tries to end his ordeal, and the novel, by killing himself: "And he couldn' t do it. He could not fucking die. How could he leave? How could he go? Everything he hated was here."

It is a tribute to the perverse vitality of Philip Roth's latest creation that this ending seems right. Sabbath is ironically doomed to live, chained to his own pathological sexuality, too full of low, loathful life to die. He is an excessive character but his excess is stamped with authority. The authority comes from the ebullient Roth, who has finally created a fictional protagonist outside of himself to whom he can devote his sustained imaginative attention. Though Roth has not totally abandoned the subterfuges of self-conscious autobiography--there are several teasing parallels and a profound affinity with his character--he has transcended them by inventing a larger, richer universe which can absorb (and transmute) his merely personal concerns. Put otherwise, for the first time in several decades, Philip Roth has written a book in which neither Philip Roth and his post-Portnoy literary career, nor Roth's thinly-veiled stand-in, the author Nathan Zuckerman, makes an appearance. The sense of relief is enormous.

Roth's relief, and literary release, seems palpable too, as if letting go of his own overt biography has freed his imagination and unleashed a new zest for fictional exploration. Sabbath's Theater may be, in fact, one of those books that forces us to reappraise its author's career. Despite several bold, self-reflective, intermittently brilliant forays into literary experimentation during the past 25 years (The Ghost Writer, The Counterlife, and that ingenious failure Operation Shylock), and some outright clunkers (The Professor of Desire, Deceptions), Roth's most satisfying work has been the affecting but nonfiction Patrimony, a slim memoir of his father's death. Ironically, it is Roth's fiction that has seemed too narrow and self-confined, even as it took on "big" ideas--until Sabbath's Theater, which feels like his first completely successful synthesis of so many previous concerns.

The basic theme of the novel is hardly new. A lecherous, unconventional old man rages against the passage of time and the dwindling of potency by which he has defined his existence. But this theme is handled with more lyrical energy, greater sexual frankness, and, simultaneously, sharper comedy and deeper seriousness than usual: the mad, abiding human need for sexual contact in any form, and the necessity to arrange, or derange, one's life to accommodate this most basic drive; the unbridgeable gap between appetite and conscience; the cost of true rebellion and nonconformity; marriage and adultery; aging and desire; suicide; and death. Add to this list the other Rothian staples--being a Jew in modern-day America, being a man in a feminist world, being an artist in bourgeois society--and you have the basic, tangy ingredients.

Though there is a deft use of flashback and association, the story moves forward at a brisk pace. When his beloved, promiscuous mistress dies, the grieving Sabbath leaves his recovering-alcoholic wife--who hates but supports him--and sets off a on a wild voyage to his past that combines genuine soul-searching with "hell-bent-for-disaster erotomania." These events are filtered through the mind and actions of a genuine literary rogue and scoundrel, a charming, outrageous, manipulative character whose influences include Chaucer, Rabelais, Shakespeare, Yeats, Joyce, Miller and Joyce Carey of "The Horse's Mouth". (On another level, the comic-strip exaggerations and phallic obsessiveness recall the art of R. Crumb).

Sabbath is the self-proclaimed "Monk of Fucking, the Evangelist of Fornication." From the age of 17, when he ran off to sea so he could visit every whorehouse in the world, his life has been singlemindedly devoted to the pleasures of the flesh.

The core of seduction is persistence. Persistence, the Jesuit ideal. Eighty percent of women will yield if the pressure is persistent. You must devote yourself to fucking the way a monk devotes himself to God. Most men have to fit fucking in around the edges of what they define as the more pressing concerns: the pursuit of money, power, politics, fashion, Christ knows what it might be -- skiing. But Sabbath had simplified his life and fit the other concerns in around fucking.

Sabbath's philosophy is to do whatever he wants and not to worry about pleasing anyone. During the 1950s he becomes a puppeteer performing in front of Columbia University and establishes the Indecent Theater of Manhattan before he is busted on obscenity charges for coaxing a women's breast out of her blouse. Sabbath is undaunted. He takes particular pleasure in his ability to antagonize people, as if only by measuring their outrage can he gain an adequate reflection of himself. He manages to hurt, deceive, betray, lie, steal, offend, insult, and abuse just about everyone he meets: both of his wives; his mistress (even though he loves her); his host and loyal former friend, whose wife, daughter and maid he exploits in varying degrees; his 21-year-old student, even if she gives as good as she gets, leaving behind a steamy tape of their phone sex encounter which is promptly bootlegged and made available on an 800 number.

But though Sabbath is truly "loathesome, degenerate and gross," he is also a sentient creature with a moral consciousness. An almost idyllic childhood on the Jersey shore is shattered by the death of his beloved older brother, Morty. After Morty's plane is shot down over the Philipines during World War II, Sabbath's mother goes into a catatonic state. The hitherto close family is destroyed and Sabbath feels as if he too is dead: "The living son she ceased to recognize." This traumatic dual loss helps explain Sabbath's selfish, carnal world view: since life is so brutally unfair and incomprehensible, why not live for the pleasures of the moment and the flesh, the only reliable realities? Sex is life and Sabbath is fully, crassly, and unapologetically alive.

Yet even as he indulges his every sexual impulse--and casts a withering, satirical eye on those less in touch with their sensual natures--Sabbath does not give up trying to understand the deeper mysteries of life. Why did his brother have to die? Why did his mother turn her back on life? And why does he feel the pain and sadness that increasingly overcome him? "This is human life," the omnipresent ghost of his mother tells him, "There is a great hurt that everyone has to endure." The novel derives much of its comic pathos from this tension between Sabbath's low-life existence--he and Roth revel in his incorrigible lechery--and his yearning for higher illumination:

Lately when Sabbath suckled at Drenka's uberous breasts--uberous, the root word of exuberant, which is itself ex plus uberare, to be fruitful, to overflow like Venus lying prone on Tintoretto's painting where the Milky Way is coming out of her tit--suckled with an unrelenting frenzy that caused Drenka to roll her head ecstatically back and forth and to groan (as Venus herself may have once groaned), "I feel it deep down in my cunt," he was pierced by the sharpest of longings for his late little mother.

Such stylistic virtuosity can become sterile when marshalled for sheer effect, as in some of Roth's recent work. But here it is largely effective because it advances our understanding of individual characters embedded in real conflict. To be sure, Roth is better at conjuring the raunchy, or the morally ambivalent, than the purely solemn: Morty, for example, is less convincing as a character because he is too good to be true, while Sabbath's despair is less credible than his rage, confusion, or duplicitousness. Still, this novel contains some of the funniest--and finest--writing in English today.

Sabbath seems partially redeemed by an awareness of his situation, which gives him a comic, Lear-like grandeur when he hits bottom panhandling on the New York City subway. And for all his mischief-making and manipulation, he does not really take anyone in. As his tolerant, upper-middle class producer friend, Norman--who, along with his attractive, menopause-battling, dentist wife Michelle, is among the best-drawn characters in a novel rich in portraiture--says:

Isn't it tiresome in 1994, this role of rebel-hero? What an odd time to be thinking of sex as rebellion. Are we back to Lawrence's gamekeeper? At this late hour? To be out with that beard of yours, upholding the virtues of fetishism and voyeurism. To be out with that belly of yours, championing pornography and flying the flag of your prick. What a pathetic, outmoded old crank you are, Mickey Sabbath.

Towards the end, as he battles the impulse to kill himself ("wifeless, mistressless, penniless, vocationless, homeless"), Sabbath appears to find something he can affirm besides his prick: he goes to a seedy cemetery where his family is buried and chooses a burial plot for himself; he finds a 100-year-old man from his childhood, Cousin Fish, still alive; he discovers cherished mementoes from his dead brother. But a final effort at reconciliation with his wife turns into broad farce. Sabbath's fate is to remain outside, a disruptive life force, like some exiled Jack-in-the-box.

Sabbath's Theater is a signal achievement, crackling with more energy than any of Roth's creations since Portnoys' Complaint. And his latest work is peopled with a greater variety of characters and life experience, a more sophisticated narrative, wider tonal range, and a more complex, fully-realized protagonist than that brilliant, hysterically funny but essentially one-note monologue. But whether Sabbath's Theater will win Roth back a mass popular audience is less certain. Portnoy was a landmark in its frank treatment of ethnicity and sex--most notably masturbation, shikses, and Jewish mothers--and in its comic depiction of painful repression. It broke the taboos of its time, for all time.

Sabbath's Theater is equally graphic in sexual terms, and equally, hilariously iconoclastic: masturbation, while still big, has been superseded by the "golden shower." But this form of sexual exchange may prove too perverse to elicit the same howls of recognition and sympathy from the average reader. Especially since, unlike the farcical liver scene in Portnoy, the ever-subversive Roth treats two aging lovers pissing on each other as a tender, emotional climax, an act of love he wants the reader to understand and share. Here is Sabbath listening to his dying Croatian mistress in the hospital.

"I felt that, I felt that--you were totally with me then. In all senses, as I was lying there afterward in the stream, holding you in the stream, in all senses, not just as my lover, as my friend, as someone, you know, when you are sick I can help you and as my total blood brother. . . . It's so forbidden and yet it has the most innocent meaning of anything."

"Yes," he said, looking at her dying, "how innocent it is."

Not everyone will be able to stay with this scene, particularly as it is preceded by a precise and vivid two-page description of excretory exactitude. Or, conversely, it may simply be that the world of 1995 is already too jaded and shell-shocked even to care about such "innocent" scatology. In either case, Roth has foreseen and incorporated both responses into his capacious, multi-tiered book, a striking and original work which shows a major American novelist renewing himself with a darkly complex, comic masterpiece.

Originally published in the October/November 1995 issue of Boston Review

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