If Philip Roth wasn’t the official spokesman for the testosterone industry before, he is now, with the publication of SABBATH’S THEATER, his new novel. It’s a terrific book, though I don’t know how I’ll break the news to all the women who had problems with Roth’s previous books.
Its antihero is Mickey Sabbath, a white-bearded 64-year-old satyr for whom there are basically two kinds of women: whores and his mother. He’s in a small New England town and in disgrace. Actually, several disgraces. He lost his last job, teaching at a local college, for engaging a willing coed in a long obscene phone conversation (full transcript included). As a zany young hand puppeteer in Manhattan in 1956, he was arrested for trespassing on a breast, the property of a young woman in his audience. His infidelities drove his first wife into a mysterious disappearance. They have driven his second wife to drink and his mistress to an ultimatum. When he eventually flees to New York, he’s taken in by his last remaining friend, a theater producer. He attempts to seduce the producer’s maid, then his wife, and, for good measure, takes their daughter’s underwear for immoral purposes. Not that Sabbath’s all lust. There’s also rage — against feminists, against the ”Japs” (who shot down his brother in World War II), against the fuzzy language of the recovery movement, against respectability.
The book is about what keeps us going — on the edge of oblivion and through stupid mistakes, opportunities and loves lost, understandings arrived at too late. Desire is only one answer. At one point Roth makes an equation between lust and loss: ”We are immoderate because our grief is immoderate, all the hundreds and thousands of kinds of grief.” Whatever you think of this aphorism, or of Sabbath as its incarnation, there’s no denying the novel’s brilliant, counterpunching, speed-chess ironies, its mixing of farce and the determination to face nasty facts. The result is undoubtedly Roth’s dirtiest novel, but probably his deepest, too. A