I finished it a couple of hours ago and then went to look up the reviews of this last novel of Roth’s to discover that all the reviews were listed by name of magazine and the grade that had been bestowed on this book. They go from A to F and include a couple of A's ; a C plus, the Atlantic gave it a D and the New Yorker and the New York Times remained neutral: no grade.
Enough of this. The book is brilliant. Funny and serious the way Roth knows how to do it. All his talent is there, his bitterness at the world, his incorrigible humor, the detail he provides for you to understand and to see what it is he wants you to get. The father of young Marcus is a kosher butcher; what he does and what he looks like is reminiscent of the elaborate detail in American Pastoral when Roth describes the manufacturing of gloves. Every utensil, each knife used to cut the animal into appropriate pieces, the blood on his apron and on the floor, the cleaning out of the garbage cans after the fat man has come to buy the fats kept for him to take away each week, ìmy job was to clean the butcher blocks last thing before we went home, to throw some sawdust on the blocks and then scrape them with the iron brush, and so marshaling the energy left in me, I’d scrape out the blood to keep the place kosher.
Marcus had spent seven months working for his father before setting off for college life. The time is 1950, the background is the war in Korea. The foreground is college life first in downtown Newark and later in Winesburg, Ohio a small Lutheran college campus in a beautiful rural setting.
The plot is simple, the characters are few, the detail is everything. Somewhere I read something Roth said: sheer playfulness and deadly seriousness are my closest friends. The sexual fantasies and realities of an inexperienced adolescent boy bring us back to Portnoy; the fear of the draft and the importance of staying on a student deferment keep us in the world of the dangers everywhere for the young who are killed, for what?
...unfortunate enough to be killed ...eleven months before Marcus, had he been able to stomach chapel and keep his moth shut... would have postponed learning what his uneducated father had been trying so hard to teach him all along: of the incomprehensible way one’s most banal, incidental, even comical choices achieve the most disproportionate result.
Marcus’ insistence on his right to independence, leads him to a tragic end. His revolt against his father’s definition of who he is to be just as his rage against the Dean’s idea of what is proper behavior for a college student should be, bring him to Korea to a slaughter he had hoped to avoid.
I give you another quote from a review:
"In his famous essay "Writing American Fiction," written back in 1960, Roth spoke about the difficulty of writing credibly about the time we live in. "It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one's meager imagination." As his new book and his many other novels show, it can be done by a master.
Yes, he is a master and I did not give you the plot, but it would spoil the book a little. Read it. It is wonderful."