In 1934, at the age of 28, Henry Roth published his first novel, "Call It Sleep," a remarkable, heavily autobiographical portrait of the artist as a young boy in the Jewish tenements of New York's Lower East Side. For the next 50 years or so, Roth struggled to complete a second novel without success. Miraculously, in 1994, 60 years after his debut, Roth began to publish four volumes of an autobiographical novel titled "Mercy of a Rude Stream."
The "Mercy" quartet is a work of fierce intensity and depth, comparable to Dostoevsky and Melville -- probably the finest American novel of the last 50 years. And, luckily for readers, Roth's resurgence did not end with his death in 1995. Roth left some 2,000 more pages of writing, out of which a skilled editor, Willing Davidson, has woven a new Roth novel, "An American Type."
"Mercy of a Rude Stream" ends with Roth's alter ego, Ira Stigman, moving out from his parents' Harlem apartment to join his lover and mentor Edith Welles -- a poet, English professor and Greenwich Village bohemian. "An American Type" begins a decade later, in 1938. Ira meets M, a young composer, at an artists' retreat, falls in love with her, and decides to leave Edith. But so tight is his dependence on Edith, who has housed, fed, taught and nurtured him, that Ira thinks he can break free only by leaving both Edith and M behind in New York and traveling to Los Angeles -- in the classic American tradition of trying to solve a problem by heading west.
After making a hash of things in Los Angeles, Ira begins to hitchhike and ride the rails back home, but he fails as a hobo, too. Eventually, broke and despairing, he wires M to send him bus fare. Back in New York, he moves out from Edith, goes on welfare, sells a story to the New Yorker and marries M.
As the plot unfolds, Roth offers vivid vignettes of American life during the Depression -- including dark scenes of poverty, racism and anti-Semitism -- and takes us inside the mind of a young writer trying to find his voice again. Sick of himself and his neurotic torments, Ira wants to write about a heroic communist proletarian, modeled after his friend Bill, but Bill, it turns out, is far from heroic, and anyway, Ira's gift is for writing about his own life.
At the end of the novel, as Ira and M are getting married, M's father, the executive secretary of the Kiwanis International, urges Ira to write about the "forward-looking, community-building, dedicated type of American citizen." Ira demurs that he was brought up on the seamy side, and he writes about what he knows. But if Ira satirizes his in-laws for their philistine naivete, he also criticizes himself, flashing forward to the scene, years later, when he boorishly insults them and provokes a permanent rupture over a trivial incident.
In its mixture of melancholy observation with tales of love and lust and rambling, "An American Type" is sometimes reminiscent of Jack Kerouac's "On the Road." But Kerouac, of course, did not let his adventures percolate for 50 years before crafting his novel. In "On the Road" the reader sometimes feels that an anecdote is included simply because it happened to Kerouac in real life. In "An American Type," nothing is extraneous or sentimental. Roth (with help from his editor) has an unerring sense of what to include and what to leave out. As a result, the characters, settings and events leap off the page, unnervingly real.
Among other things, "An American Type" is a poignant meditation on the American worship of success. Roth knew both sides of success; before and after "Call It Sleep," he spent almost all his life looking and feeling like an abject failure. For many years he and his family lived in a rudimentary farmhouse in Maine, where he raised and rendered waterfowl while his wife taught high school, drove the car, paid the bills, and nurtured him through his often disabling depressions.
Late in the novel, Ira visits his Uncle Morris at the cafeteria where he works and finds that "the kind of life Morris had led -- in its relentless treadmill, its compulsion -- had transformed Ira's favorite uncle from the jolly, permissive, immigrant youth he had been to the stolid counterman he had become." Ira gets the feeling that for all his relations, coming to America has turned into "a kind of pedestrian tragedy" of thwarted hopes, that they seemed a sacrifice to something.
"America? The American way? The American Dream? They seemed a sacrifice to success."
At one point in the novel, Ira, desperately seeking success, visits a literary agent, who gives him tips on turning his four aborted novels into short stories. She stresses "coming to the point" and leaving sensibility and the "I" out of it. Thankfully, Roth hewed stubbornly to his own path. His gift was for a confessional sort of novel that owes more to St. Augustine and Rousseau than writers who keep the "I" out of it.
Ironically, Ira's solitary self-fulfillment depends completely on the work and care of others. His mother scrimps, does without, and defies his father to make sure that Ira finishes high school and college rather than going to work. His lover, Edith, gives him material, emotional, and literary support to write his first novel. His wife, M, gives up most of her career as a composer for him. Their lives, too, are a sacrifice to success -- to Ira's, not their own.
Roth is still best known for "Call It Sleep," but hard as it may be to believe, he did not find his truest voice until his 80s. Where "Call It Sleep" can sometimes feel overwrought, overwritten, or overly indebted to literary influences such as Joyce, "Mercy of a Rude Stream" and "An American Type" are stranger and more original, and yet more plain: blunt, laconic and slangy, but exquisitely tuned to the modulations of thought and mood.
"An American Type" is not quite as rich as "Mercy of a Rude Stream" -- in part, no doubt, because Roth was not around to complete it. For example, while the title chosen by the editor is certainly appropriate, it lacks the poetry of the titles Roth chose -- like "A Diving Rock on the Hudson."
A more important difference is that, apart from framing episodes at the beginning and end, the new novel unfolds continuously, without the constant interruptions that break up the narrative in "Mercy," in which the aged Ira talks to his computer and reflects on his life and writing.
Those interruptions by the narrator/author are what make "Mercy" so original: they allow for a multifaceted "I," a prism in which the reader constantly feels the presence of Ira (and Roth) as a youth alongside Ira (and Roth) as an old man: four perspectives that, when combined, make "Mercy" so complex and enigmatic a confession.
But "An American Type" is a marvelous, indispensable work. Although Roth's style may have grown simpler and less prismatic in his last years, and although the posthumous editing may have eliminated some of his quirks, the new novel still succeeds in portraying the struggles of Roth's "I" with himself and his world with a canniness and an uncanniness like that of Jacob wrestling the angel.
Sam Magavern is the co-director of the Partnership for the Public Good and the author of "Primo Levi's Universe: a Writer's Journey."
An American Type By Henry Roth; edited by Willing Davidson Norton 283 pages, $25.95