If an unkempt, foul-smelling older man should approach you in a bus station and launch into a less than linear, sometimes obscene, clearly intelligent monologue, do not shuffle away immediately; you may be speaking to Phillip Roth, the bemedaled novelist. Just how long--and how carefully--you will listen is what interests this author. That is his schtick. Well, stick it out. With his twenty-first novel, Sabbath's Theater, Mr. Roth gives us Mickey Sabbath, an aging, disgraced, arthritic puppeteer limping, no reeling, towards death. Finally, he is a magnificent character in a compelling story, crashing backwards through all the hurt he has caused.
Roth has always examined the perverse. For those who have followed Roth's heroes from dysfunctional adolescence, Mickey Sabbath is the logical endpoint: a cruel, brilliant, hormonal misanthrope, heartless and soulful. By now, dysfunction seems too kind a word to describe the protagonist's modus operandi. What we have here is malfunction.
Mickey Sabbath is a washed-up street performer--for a brief long-ago moment the darling of the New York agitprop scene, now self-exiled in New Hampshire, financially dependent upon his equally bitter second wife. With the death of his Croatian mistress, Sabbath loses the thread of his miserable life, and sets off on a micro-odyssey with no real object.
It is hard to ignore the novelist Roth in the puppeteer Sabbath. As an author, he invites the comparison. While test-driving coffins, Roth creates Sabbath who is grotesque essentially because he is old. Granted, he is a hard-used, degenerate failure, unwilling or unable to relinquish the brutish virility that got him this far. He is that fairly innocuous, vaguely threatening monster: the lecher, the dirty old man.
But he is so much more. With Sabbath, Phillip Roth becomes heir to author, Frederick Exley, the champion of the drooling, masturbatory sage. It's no easy feat. You have to make these guys truly repellent, absolutely unapologetic and yet still eloquent and artful enough to win the reader.
As expected, here also is Roth the irreverent Jew, Assuring a concerned New York friend that, yes, he can find a bagel in New Hampshire, Sabbath says, "They're every-where. They're like guns."
Stereotypes--sophisticated, hi-fidelity stereotypes--are introduced, are belittled, and then skillfully revealed as vivid characters. We can see this in Sabbath's sexual escapades, which have a touch of the anthropological about them. Sabbath is shame-less enough to offer a girl in a detox clinic two quarts of vodka in return for sexual favors (while, mind you, he is ostensibly visiting his wrecked second wife drying up in said clinic), he is sharp enough to describe both his target and his wife with a commited, if not exactly compassionate, eye. This unblinking veracity is the source of Roth's much lauded credibility.
One could read Sabbath's Theater as Roth's backlash, a Mamet-like refutation of P.C. feminism. But that would be missing the point. Roth never comes close to defending Sabbath. He only hopes to render the man--his "primal emotions and indecent language and careful, complex sentences"--in such high relief that, try as we might, we cannot despise him. When Sabbath is booted out of his puppetry professorship at a local college, Roth sees fit to include, as a foot-note, a lengthy transcript of the offending teacher-student phone sex episode. This is only Roth the provacateur, daring us to be offended. Sadly, it's gratuitous, lurid instead of daring.
The real story turns out not be about about some engorged septuagenarian, but about an old man with a great deal of baggage who is trying to die. That he cannot is alternately comic and deeply poignant. He is a man with issues: his family splintered after his hero brother was shot down in World War II, he has run from two marriages, and the specter of sexual dysfunction plagues him. Sabbath is haphazardly confronting his past; he is putting his affairs in order.
Though the novel lacks a certain resolution, the character of Sabbath makes spectacular progress in the 48 hours around which the story--like dart-a-cars set up in the dining room--swoops in its looping trajectory. Whether Sabbath, wronged and wronging, bitter and bold and mean can go on is unclear. Roth has corralled a teeming, obscene, dwindling life, and that is enough.
The noblest in Sabbath, and perhaps in Roth, is the coming-full-circle, the rejoining of ends. Recalling his Jersey Shore childhood, Sabbath is a modern day Thornton Wilder: "There was a man in Belmar who sold only bananas, and he hired Morty and Morty hired me. The job was to go along the streets hollering 'Bananas, twenty-five cents a bunch!' What a great job. I still sometimes dream about that job. You got paid to shout 'Bananas!'"