The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006


Philip Roth's 1961 second novel, LETTING GO, was actually his first full-length novel; GOODBYE, COLUMBUS, the book that won the National Book Award in 1960, was a story collection dominated by the novella-length title story. I've been reading Roth for the majority of my life now, and I think that (as with many other people) PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT was the first "adult" novel I actually read (either that or Irving's WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP, I can't remember). LETTING GO, although it doesn't precede PORTNOY by many years, has none of that book's exuberance and vulgarity, although it does share with it, and with essentially all of Roth's other books, an obsession with the question of the assimilation of essentially secular Jews.

My wife asked me, when I hit the halfway point of the novel, what it is about. I couldn't really answer, except to muse that it was more a collection of character sketches. The book follows a typical Roth character, Gabe Wallach, as he attends graduate school in Iowa and then lands a job teaching humanities at the U. of Chicago, but more importantly as he figures out his relationship to his father, to a trio of women in his life, and to his friend Paul, another New York Jew with family troubles. As always, Roth makes great use of narrative point of view. In books like AMERICAN PASTORAL, Roth starts with the voice of his Zuckerman character but then narrates the vast majority of the book in the voice and from the POV of another character. He doesn't do that here; in LETTING GO he switches point-of-view between Wallach and almost all of the other main characters, although Wallach is the only character who gets first-person narration. Unusual for Roth, much of the plot of the book centers on children, and unfortunately (in my opinion, and keep in mind that this is coming from the father of two small children) Roth seems to be using them cheaply for emotional effect--the tragic death of a young boy, an orphan in uncertain custody, for instance. Roth's books always move along, and his insight into his characters is always incredible, but LETTING GO felt to me a little meandering.


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