Philip Roth
(Houghton Mifflin)
The first fifty pages were so boring I almost dumped it. I was thinking that maybe Houghton Mifflin had come up with another Philip Roth, because the real Philip Roth would never write sentences like, "When I entered Winesburg, his replacement, General Ridgway, was in the difficult first stages of armistice negotiations with a Communist delegation from North Korea, and the war looked as though it could go on for years, with tens of thousands more Americans killed, wounded, and captured." Or, in describing the fraternities at Winesburg College, where he is a new sophomore, "there was no face deriving from the Orient to be seen anywhere; everyone was white and Christian, except for me and this colored kid and a few dozen more."

Well, I was wrong. Roth being Roth, after the requisite blowjob, around page 54, Indignation comes indignantly to life. Marcus Messner falls in love with the suicidal fellow-student Olivia. He throws up on the desk of the dean of students (and on his oriental rug). There is a lusty panty raid. Messner gets his appendix cut out.

His mother comes to visit, tells of the problems with his father back home in Newark. His driving is driving her crazy. She wants a divorce. "Divorce was unknown in our Jewish neighborhood," thinks Marcus.

    I'd never known of a single household among my friends or my schoolmates or our family's friends where the parents were divorced or were drunks or, for that matter, owned a dog.

Marcus tells her to see the family doctor, Dr. Shildkret. "At least as a start. Ask his advice."

    Meanwhile, I was afraid of Shildkret's saying, "He's right. People don't know how to drive anymore. I've noticed this myself. You get into your car these days, you take your life into your hands."

"Shildkret," he concludes, "was a dope and a lousy doctor, and it was my good luck that I had come down with appendicitis nowhere in his vicinity. He would have prescribed an enema and killed me."

§     §     §

There are in all of Roth's writings a few familiar tricks that delight his fans, at least this fan. Among these are:

--- Detail: Marcus' father is a kosher butcher. So when the boy is seven or eight, Dad takes him to the slaughterhouse on Astor Street in Newark's Ironbound section, where the shochet, in skullcap, "takes the head of the animal, lays it over his knees, takes a pretty big blade, says a bracha --- a blessing --- and he cuts the neck."

    If he does it in one slice, severs the trachea, the esophagus, and the cartoids, and doesn't touch the backbone, the animal dies instantly and is kosher.

The shochet lets the animal hang there "until all the blood flows out. It's as if he took a bucket of blood, as if he took several buckets, and poured them out all at once, because that's how fast blood gushes from the arteries onto the floor, a concrete floor."

--- Connections: Immediately after this ghoulish passage, right on its heels, Marcus talks about his girlfriend Olivia's attempted suicide. That, he says, "is what Olivia had tried to do, to kill herself according to kosher specifications by emptying her body of blood."

    Had she been successful, had she expertly completed the job with a single perfect slice of the blade, she would have rendered herself kosher in accordance with rabbinical law.

"Olivia's telltale scar came from attempting to perform her own ritual slaughter." Needless to say, Olivia is a thin, white, troubled gentile.

--- Back-and-forth: There is a wonderful --- should we say cutting? --- dialogue. Marcus' father forces him to go off to Winesburg because of a recurring scene with the old man. He arrives home late (he was studying Gibbon): "So there you are," his father announces.

    "Yeah. Strange, isn't it? At home. I sleep here. I live here. I am your son, remember?"

    "Are you? I've been everywhere looking for you."

    "Why? Why? Somebody, please, tell me why 'everywhere.'"

    "Because if anything were to happen to you --- if something were ever to happen to you --- "

    "But nothing will happen. Dad, I am not the terror of the earth who plays pool, Eddie Pearlgreen! Nothing is going to happen."

    "I know better than anybody that I'm lucky with my boy."

    "Then what is this all about, Dad?"

    "It's about life, where the tiniest misstep can have tragic consequences."

    "Oh, Christ, you sound like a fortune cookie."

    "Do I? Do I? Not like a concerned father but a fortune cookie? That's what I sound like when I'm talking to my son about the future he has ahead of him, which any little thing could destroy, the tiniest thing"

    "Oh, the hell with it!" I cried, and ran out of the house, wondering where I could find a car to steal to go to Scranton to play pool and maybe pick up the clap on the side.

§     §     §

As always there's the sheer power of the story. Roth is a storyteller, as good a storyteller as Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, J. D. Salinger or Sherwood Anderson (author of Winesburg, Ohio, which pops up several times in this book). Overall, there is the haze of paranoia, one that permeates Marcus' life, a haze that forces him to distrust everyone and everything, as any smart nineteen-year-old would: Did his mother really want to divorce his nutty father, or was it a game to force Marcus to give up Olivia? How did the Dean find out that Marcus and Olivia were having sex? Who tore up his room while he was in the hospital? And what is to keep him from getting kicked out of Winesburg College, getting drafted, being sent off to Korea, getting knifed on Massacre Mountain?

Nothing. In fact, he does leave school, is drafted, goes to Korea, where, on mission, a Chinese soldier hacks "his intestines and genitals to bits," and he dies.

Maybe I shouldn't tell you this. Maybe I should let you read Indignation on your own, but I'm feeling cheated by Marcus' death, and I want you to feel indignant if not cheated too ... even though Roth tells us just before the blow-job scene that Marcus is reciting all this from a free-floating death space. We know ahead of time that Marcus is a goner.

That doesn't keep it from being a literary sin. Roth creates him, gives him life (and our love), then leaves him carved up on page 225 ("Here memory ceases"). Who are we to complain about what a writer may choose to do with his hero, even if he is our hero too? If Shakespeare wants to do assisted suicide on good Antony, fallen on his own sword, so be it. If Richardson's Pamela dies because of the loss of her maidenhead, that's the breaks. If Lewis can sicken Arrowsmith with a cigarette infused with bacteriophage, then Roth can finish off whatever character he wants, however he wants.

Still, we are thinking that Roth could have spent a bit more time --- if he weren't so busy publishing new books (this is number thirty) --- polishing and shaping, giving us a better if not happier ending, perhaps even offering a bonus of yet another 100 pages. Sending Marcus off to Korea to have his nuts chopped off by an anonymous Communist soldier seems out of order, out of touch and out of hand.

--- Irving Spivack

Mon Amour

Selected Writings
Salah al Hamdani
Sonia Alland, Translator

The high point of Baghdad Mon Amour finds the poet, a refugee from Saddam's rule, after thirty years abroad, trying to break back in through the Iraqi border to visit his family in Baghdad.

American security forces, suspecting all men to be putative terrorists, are keeping everyone out. Salah thus has to fly to Damas, Syria, and hire a taxi "with merchandise" to carry him over the frontier. Why travel with a taxi filled with cornflakes, soda, and cigarettes? "Only merchants have the right to cross the border at the moment," he is told. The Americans opt not to inspect too closely cars filled "with merchandise," afraid of everything blowing up in their faces.

After paying off the Syrian border guards they end up at Abou Al Walid, the Iraqi border station. No one is allowed to pass. The Iraqi soldiers all appear to be fifteen years old, he writes: "armed with machine guns, revolvers, and bludgeons."

    Perhaps they are Bedouins, somewhat simple-minded, for they're growing mustaches to appear virile.

After Salah spends some time dithering with the border guards, come the Americans, led by an "imposing marine."

    His helmet appeared to be screwed onto his head and he was wearing dark glasses in a curved frame that covered his temples like a theater mask. He was followed by an Iraqi translator dressed in exactly the same manner.

And how do Salah and the others finally get across? In time-honored Iraqi fashion: someone gets paid off, and the cars move through the darkness to an illegal entry-point. They are advised to keep the lights off, not to light cigarettes for fear of being spotted and perhaps shot at. "It was total darkness. We followed other cars maneuvering over mounds of sand. The cars glided one after the other, incessantly, and seemed to disappear into a well of black oil." Nothing changes, the author thinks:

    It's always the same thing with the border police charged with preventing undesirable traffic. It cheats the Americans today, as before, under the dictatorship, it did the Iraqi people. Lying, stealing and trafficking are truly inscribed in their mentality.

America, with its billion-dollar-a-day budget in Iraq, cannot seal the border around Abou Al Walid, or anywhere else for that matter. How does one erase the traditional force of bribe in some obscure corner of a country with such a tradition of compliant police?

§     §     §

Salah al Hamdani is a poet, but I don't think any of his poems can match the simple prose that tells of his adventures at the border and the final reunion, after three decades, with his mother. "Her clothes were black for mourning, like those of all the mothers in the peasant families of my country."

    She loved us all in silence and bore her pain in silence as well. She would weep, sad at heart, only in the middle of the night and thus, allowed no one to penetrate the mysteries of her thinking.

The first night after their coming together she demands that he sleep with her. Like any grown son, he is embarrassed. "How could I sleep with my mother in her bed? ... Was my mother suffering from a psychological disorder? Was she demented?"

Seems not. "My mother entered her bedroom and I followed her, holding my breath, feeling faint.

    "That's your bed," she said. Then without further ado, she slipped into hers.

"At that moment I understood that my presence in the house wouldn't have satisfied her if she couldn't also hear my breathing in the night."

Our last vision of the old woman, with "her luminous face from the south of Iraq" is as poetic as any of the verse in Baghdad Mon Amour.

    My mother had a unique way of sleeping. She rolled her body up in her black veil and buried herself in it.

--- Hamid Isa

Tree Barking
A Memoir
Nesta Rovina
Nesta Rovina seems always to have lived on the edge. She grew up in white South Africa during the turmoil of apartheid. Then she went to Israel to live in a kibbutz and on the first day of the war, October 6, 1973, on the Sinai Peninsula, her fiancé was killed. From there she migrated to the San Francisco Bay area, and after more schooling, she ended up working as a home help therapist.

By the 1990s, this was a booming business, both in the public and private sector. Rovina was to spend eight years going into the homes of the very poor and the very sick, attempting to show the "clients" how to care for themselves, how to get around, how to do exercises, how to involve their family members in their rehabilitation, or, at the least, in their survival.

Tree Barking consists of a series of short and startling case studies about thirty or so of the poor, suffering, or stoned families that Rovina encountered in the East Bay: crack-addicts, victims of drive-by shootings, terminal diabetics, terminal alcoholics, terminal stroke victims, terminal nut cases.

There is a woman in her mid-fifties, suffering from "chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes, hypertension, alcoholism, and addiction to nicotine."

    The first time I saw Nancy was through the pall of smoke that permeated the house, the smell clinging to the carpets, curtains, and bedclothes like leeches. She lay in bed, smoking ...The skin on her arms and upper chest hung off her bones like crinkly paper, and her fingers and teeth were stained a permanent dirty mustard color.

"Packets of cigarettes, empty Jack Daniel's bottles, and six-packs of soda were strewn on the floor, along with old newspapers, tabloid magazines, and phone and TV cords."

    Nancy, between coughing and gasping for breath, stated that she did not need anything.

§     §     §

This is just one of Tree Barking's horror stories, and not the most grim. "Dysfunctional does not even come close to describing some of the families we see," she tells us in an aside.

Each story runs no more than four or five pages; the underlying theme is the breakdown of a society, along with the tapering off of an American commitment. Starting in the 1920's with Jane Addams Hull House, there was a marriage between government and private assistance to offer structured help to the very unfortunate. Now, apparently, good American and Good Samaritan assistance is drying up. Rovina's job was to do "evaluations" --- to see who qualified for whatever assistance was available from the government or private agencies.

We start with one of her clients who is afflicted with "Tree Barking."

    Below her knees her legs had loomed, larger than any swollen legs I'd every seen. They resembled pictures I had stared at with fascinated horror in medical "freak" books when I was young, only these were far worse.

"The skin stretched over those calves was gnarled, tough, and furry looking, full of crevices and nodules, like the bark of an ancient decaying tree. An odor of sweet rotting flesh and decay emanated through the crocks and fissures." This is Mae, who is helped by her church, who had a lilting sweet accent, who only needed "some practical advice on how to take care of herself."

Among the tales of "the old and discarded" are notes of hope. In a nursing home, Rovina meets another ancient black woman who says, "Yet another beautiful day, blessed be."

    She praised me, praised her accommodations, and praised the food she had just finished eating. The whole of her emaciated, crooked little being radiated genuine delight with her lot in life.

Tree Barking is hideous, stirring, sometimes funny, sometimes despairing, often moving. Even after the most awful case-studies, it keeps nagging you to pick it up, to read the next tale of woe. The subtext is the usual one that haunts social workers, couselors, teachers, therapists: what is the payoff in being a "helper?" The pay is awful, the conditions squalid, the abuse (from clients, from one's own bureaucracy) is intolerable. Others of us who worked in this field can but praise her for her stint of giving care in a society growing more careless, stand amazed that she lasted as long as she did.

--- Evelyn Wyatt, MSW
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