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'Sabbath's Theater': Roth comes of age

"Sabbath's Theater," by Philip Roth. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 451 pages. $24.95 After 21 books, Philip Roth has finally written a real novel.

That may seem an outrageous statement about a near-legendary American author showered with accolades, including, in the last decade alone, two National Book Critics Circle Awards and the PEN/Faulkner prize. Nonetheless, I think it's a fair claim. Let me explain.

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While justly celebrated for their humor, anger, shock value and energy, Mr. Roth's novels have seemed a series of literary exercises rather than literature itself, their mechanics as visible as underwear through a sheer skirt. Some of his fiction - "The Breast," "Portnoy's Complaint" - is a strictly one-joke affair. Others - "Operation Shylock" and the Zuckerman tetralogy ("The Ghost Writer," "Zuckerman Unbound," "The Anatomy Lesson" and "The Counterlife") - are more complex, yet just as synthetic, full of distracting stylistic gimmicks and philosophical game-playing. More artifice than art, these are novels designed primarily to show off their author's inventiveness. In truth, they're often just annoying.

Until recently, the best storytelling Mr. Roth did was a work of non-fiction, the moving 1992 memoir of his father's final illness called "Patrimony." Until, that is, the publication of his newest novel, "Sabbath's Theater."

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Funnier, angrier, more sexually explicit than ever, Mr. Roth here manages also to seem more relaxed, less oppressively manipulative. He offers an inspired new protagonist in Mickey Sabbath, a mid-sixtyish puppeteer, crippled now with arthritis, who was briefly notorious in 1950s New York for a salacious street act of proto-performance art called Sabbath's Indecent Theater which got him arrested for obscenity. Since then, after refusing an offer from Sesame Street's Jim Henson to be "the fellow inside Big Bird," Mickey has languished in the New England town of Madamaska Falls, desultorily teaching puppetry at a local college. His first wife disappeared 30 years ago; he has lost his current wife to the (to him) imbecilic platitudes of AA; his lover, the sexually inexhaustible Croatian wife of a hotel owner, has just died of cancer.

A subversive personality with a lifelong ambition to "overawe and horrify ordinary people," Mickey is at last confronting his inability to subvert death, the final bourgeois convention. On a spree of grief, mourning his mistress along with his older brother Morty, killed in World War II, he wanders half-deranged from Madamaska Falls to Manhattan to the tumbledown Jersey shore town where he was born.

With its use of pastiche, shifting time frames and Walpurgisnacht atmosphere, "Sabbath's Theater" owes much to that other great novel about a grief-stricken wandering Jew, "Ulysses." There are also echoes of "The Tempest" and, it struck me, of the stories of I. B. Singer. Mr. Roth's book has already been labeled pornographic by a few readers of the two recent excerpts in the New Yorker. It is. But it is not obscene, for the same reasons that Nabokov's masterpiece "Lolita" (a less graphic but infinitely more shocking novel) is not: because the sexual material, while possibly offensive, belongs to a work of serious literary value.

It took more than 35 years, but Philip Roth has finally managed to produce a more than merely brilliant novel, a deeply life-celebrating memento mori. "The mercy there is in life, and none of it deserved," says Mickey Sabbath. "All our crimes against each other, and still we get another shot at it in a new pair of pants!"

* Donna Rifkind is a former literary agent and magazine editor whose writing has been published by Commentary, the American Scholar, the New Criterion, the Wall Street Journal, the Times Literary Supplement, the Washington Post and the New York Times.


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