Thursday, October 15, 2015

Book 67- Call It Sleep (103 book)

Book 67 was Call it Sleep by Henry Roth. It was the book of the month for July, but I somehow missed doing a review and now the finer point of the novel seem to have escaped me. I liked this book, that much I remember. The story follows David Schearl a young Jewish immigrant as he grows up in a new and terrifying world. It is coming of age story that rang very true for me.

David reminds me a lot of myself at that age because he finds the world a frightening place. A classic example of my early fear was the fact that my mother had to sneak out of my Preschool class when I wasn't looking after 3 days of accompanying me. I also, apparently, taught myself to read because when ever we had guests arrive at the house I would run upstairs and hide. I was always found reading books after the guest left.

David is a mamma's boy with a father who is a tyrant. He constantly lives in fear of upsetting his father and causing a huge row in his house. This shapes part of who he becomes later in the novel since he is timid and fluctuates between the fear of his peers and the fear of his father. These two opposing worries shape a lot of his encounters throughout the rest of the novel and ultimately shape his destiny.

David is also Jewish and his mother decides to send him to a Hebrew school to further his religious education despite the fact that the family isn't really devote. It is at Hebrew school where David learns the story of Isaiah and the coal being pressed to his lips to purify him. David instantly falls in love with this story and becomes obsessed with trying to have an encounter with God. One day on his ramblings throughout the city he stumbles upon a group of boys who show him the power of electricity in the live trolley lines. David somehow equates this experience with the story of Isaiah and believes that he has seen God.

Later in the story he meet a Catholic boy who lives in the neighbourhood. He discovers a rosary and becomes obsessed with having it at all costs. This obsession is used as a bribe by the neighbour boy to convince David to introduce him to his female cousins. David lives in constant fear of male/female relations after an encounter he had with a girl when he was younger and also after hearing about his mother affair with a non Jewish man before she met his father. David is constantly racked with guilt and his religious interest in partially based on him wanting to be good and feel clean.

The neighbour boy gives David the rosary and meets David's cousins only to assault one of them who then tells on him. David in a fit of panic runs to the Rabbi who is teaching him Hebrew. In order to cover up why he snuck into the school David tells the Rabbi an elaborate lie about his parentage based partially on the story he hears about his mother's encounter with the non Jewish man. The story culminates in a dramatic encounter where the Rabbi, the aunt and her new husband all converge on the Schearl house at the same time.

In owning up to the crime that happened the rosary falls out of his pocket and the father flies into a rage believing that it has all been an elaborate plot against him since the beginning. David runs out of the house and heads down to the trolley rails wanting to have another encounter with God. He jams a piece of metal into the tracks and is electrocuted. As he lies there with people trying to help him the title of the novel becomes clear as he utter the final line of the book that "he might as well call it sleep".

Normally, I don't retell plots when writing a review, but as I set out to write this review I needed to refresh the story in my own mind. The pieces of the story that stuck out the most for me are so tied in with the events that happen to David it is hard to share the details without sharing the plot. I think the most defining feature of this book for me was finding my childhood self mirrored in the  main character. This story portrayed both my fear of the world which lasted well into my teen years and also my dedication and devotion to God which developed as a direct result of myself trying to make sense of a world I found terrifying and confusing.

Although my fear and need to cling to God eventually lessened, my faith and belief in a very personal God never disappeared. I think this is what drew me to David's character the most. While all his fellow Hebrew schoolmates saw their religious education as a chore David found meaning and hope in it. The story of Isaiah stuck with him when he heard it told to an older student. He was also struck by the story of Christian faith as told by his Catholic neighbour. These things endeared David to me.

I like that this quest of reading the 100 greatest novels has lead to me hearing about different life experiences. Henry Roth is Jewish and wrote this story as Jewish immigrant and it reflects parts of life I will probably never have to experience. It is still great to be able to read it and find a deeper human meaning behind someone who had a vastly different experience of the world. Great literature is literature that makes us think and also literature that unites us together in the human experience. I would recommend this novel to anyone.


Joseph said...

Hey Miranda, question for you. I didn't read your review, because I have this is in my TBR, and I hate spoilers. I was wondering if you think I can read just the first in the Trilogy with any satisfaction, or do I really need to read the trilogy? My "LIST" only has the first, but I've been wondering if that would work. Can it stand alone?

magicandmystery said...

If you are talking about the USA Trilogy then you should be fine to only read the first one. The books are only loosely connected by a series of similar characters who cross paths now and again. Each of the books are set in a different time period in the first few years of 20th century USA. The Trilogy doesn't really have a definitive end per se so you won't be missing out on much at least not in terms of story resolution.