The Noonday Press
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux), New York
ISBN: 0-374-52292-8
We look to the best books as examples that fulfill both the basic commandments of writing—entertain, educate, persuade—and the subtle slights of hand that stir something basic within the reader. Henry Roth’s novel/memoir, Call It Sleep, is an example of a book which deserves, perhaps even demands, the title of “classic.”
         Penned in 1934, Mr. Roth’s only novel was not enthusiastically received until its reissue in 1964, a time when the racial, familial, and societal struggles he describes were likely more relevant to the general reader. Alfred Kazin has called the work, “The most profound novel of Jewish life that I have ever read by an American.” Though that is sweeping praise, it is perhaps too exclusive. Call It Sleep is a thoroughly American book, one which details both the struggles faced by the immigrant throughout the nation’s history and the personal trials that are the torment of every school-aged child. It is novel of hope and despair, of the search for a better life, of the need for independence and tradition.
         The novel details a few years in the life of young David Schearl, the son of a doting mother and borderline-abusive father, immigrants who are assured of nothing but struggle, hardship, and the self-questioning which unite and divide in alternate. David is plagued by questions of belonging. His strong attachment to his mother is countered by a subconscious aversion to the weakness that need indicates as he yearns for adulthood and respect.
         One of Mr. Roth’s most powerful tools is the contrast he employs between the lyrical Yiddish spoken at home and the street English spoken (badly) by New York’s adopted children. But these are unusual children, forced to grow old too quickly by a reality that cannot be hidden by youthful games. The sometimes startling rebellion which wells within them at the notion of being forced to fill even one more early 20th century mold gives the story the ring of truth. These lessons are driven home for David by the problems — emotional and physical—of the elder Schearl as he makes his way from one uncertain job to another. Though the tough life the family leads would be familiar to working-class Americans of every era, the compassion and insight with which it is handled touches Mr. Roth’s characters with a special grace.
         Outstanding also is the author’s blunt description of David’s sexual awakening. Crude, fatalistic, ambient, it is never snide or haughty or ridden with cliches. David’s fear of the neighborhood children — a fear which is matched only by his terror at the thought of abandonment—is propelled by a neighbor who wants him to “play bad”. When David realizes the frequent visits on the part of his father’s friend have little to do with his mother’s cooking, he is horrified, angered, and driven to understand the strange and emotive game.  
         His mother’s dark history with a gentile lover, household violence and insecurity, and memories of what now seems the better life pervade the grim and accurate look at the ghetto. Yet the novel ends on a note of hope. David is allowed back into his home after being beaten for the unforgivable sin of taking a rosary from a Polish boy. To David it is a toy, an object of wonder and beauty. To his family, religious leaders, and “friends” it is the symbol of immutable sin and of the anti-Semitism which played a large role in driving them from their homeland. But he is warm in his bed, his mother’s never-ending understanding and love a comfort to the grief-stricken, uncertain boy. And he is home, where the past and the present unite; it is the only place which allows the indiscretion of dreaming of a brighter future. A symbol haunts which the pages is employed a final time: David falls into the shadow of death. “One might as well call it sleep. He shut his eyes.”
         And so do we, reminded that life is the sum of so many small moments of joy and grief. Perhaps Mr. Roth sought to write of a Jewish life. At that he succeeded . But he also painted a portrait of childhood mistakes and ambitions, of a family struggling to find an identity, of a young country in all its lust and error. He tells the story of journeys and hope. He tells it well.