September 3/16 A belated review

A recent discussion brought this book to mind. It has been over ten years since I read it, I think, but it is one of those unknown classics.


Not a good cover since it is a memoir of urban life, NYC, at the turn of the last century, written with passion, loving remembrances, the frustrations and furies of growing up the son of recent immigrants in particular and the questions children always have in general. It is replete with images of a vanished world. These children were not saturated with images, propaganda, advertising, hectoring and canned music at every turn. A street life, a neighborhood where everybody knew everybody else and got into everybody else’s business for good or for ill. Roth’s biography was written by Steve Kellman, titled Redemption, and it  is also good.

In the new dystopian series I am in some way trying to create a vital street life as portrayed in Call It Sleep.  (What an awful title). Most dystopian narratives portray a beaten, dull populace crushed by the presence of The Authorities but I felt it would be far more true to life to find the liveliness in the urban dystopia. In The Fifth Circle there is a young guy in the prison who had managed to evade the Soviet authorities for two years, without an ID, or residence permit, internal passport etc. and was determined to escape and do it again. Street life is so ad hoc. Inventive.

Roth runs into the problem of dialect — how to portray it, what orthography? He tries to recreate it in spelling, which is a solution that has its own problems but it works. It sounds to me very New York but then I am no expert on New York speech.

     Sophe-e! Above him the cry. Sophe-e!

     Ye-es mama-a! from a girl across the street.

     Comm opstehs! Balt!


     Balt or I’ll give you! Nooo!

     With a rebellious shudder the girl began crossing the street. The window slammed down. Pushing a milk-stained rancid baby carriage before them, squat buttocks waddled past, one arm from somewhere dragging two reeling children, each hooked by its hand to the other, each bouncing against the other and against their mother like tops, flagging and whipped. (Me; tops are spun by whipping with a cord) A boy ran in front of the carriage. It rammed him.

     Ow! Kentcha see wea yuh goin? He rubbed his ankle. …

     Ahead of him, flying toward the shore beyond the East River, shaggy clouds trooped after their van. And across the river the white smoke of nearer stacks was flattened out and stormy as though the stacks were the funnels of a flying ship. …At the doorway to the cheder corridor he stopped and cast one lingering glace up and down the street…He’d better go in before the rest of the Rabbi’s pupils came. He turned and trudged through the dim battered corridor. The yard was gloomy. Wash-poles creaked and swayed, pullleys jangled. In a window overhjead a bulky bare-armed woman shrilled curses at someone behind her and hastily hauled in the bedding that straddled the sills like bulging sacks.

     And your guts be plucked! Her words rang out over the yard. Couldn’t you tell me it was raining? 

This is Labor Day weekend, a long weekend and so the people who fly the hang-gliders are flying over my ridge. I have tried repeatedly to get good pictures of them but have not succeeded. This has been the rainiest August on record, a friend tells me. Photographer here day before yesterday to take photo and I probably looked terrible but then one always thinks that.