BOOK REVIEW / When the long sleep ends . . .: Hugo Barnacle on the novel that took Henry Roth more than half a century to write: Mercy of a Rude Stream: A Star Shines Over Mt Morris Park Henry Roth Weidenfeld & Nicholson pounds 14.99

HENRY ROTH published his first novel in 1934. This month he published his second. In between times he seems to have been variously a toolmaker, woodman, teacher, duck farmer and psychiatric nurse, while struggling with one of the most protracted known cases of writer's block in history.

Call It Sleep, his debut, was an autobiographical story set in the immigrant slums of New York, treating low life in a high literary style. It gained a little attention for a time, but when Roth became hopelessly bogged down with the follow-up, an overtly Communist tract which he had to abandon, he was soon forgotten. He married the musician Muriel Parker and had enough to do bringing up children and getting a living.

In the Sixties, Call It Sleep was paperbacked and, with some strong critical support and the cachet of a 'neglected masterpiece', it became a bestseller. Less well known in Britain than America, it remains a Penguin Modern Classic ( pounds 7.99) all the same. With a measure of recognition, a Frieda Lawrence grant, and an improved outlook, Roth eventually saw his way clear, in 1979, to embarking on the six-volume Mercy of a Rude Stream, whose first instalment has now reached print.

It is autobiography again, the story of a Roth-figure called Ira growing up in Harlem during and just after the Great War. Intercut are passages where Ira-Roth reflects on things in March 1985 as he transfers this very manuscript to floppy disk and holds gnomic imaginary conversations with his IBM PC, which he calls 'Ecclesias' for some reason.

Little Ira is disappointed when a boatload of his mother's family arrives from Hungary and proves to be, not the wise tribe he hoped for, but just a gaggle of bewildered immigrants who don't understand American ways. 'Grotesque greenhorns his imaginings had become,' says Roth. This inverted syntax is partly a Yiddish-intoEnglish mannerism, but also a rhetorical trick that recalls Roth's old high style and contrasts nicely with Ira's real motive for despising his new relations: they do not realise that, in America, a small nephew or grandson must be tipped generously, in good coin, at every visit.

When Ira walks by the lake in Mt Morris Park, we are told that 'a bosom of stone swelled up from the water, a granite bosom, surmounted by shrubs and trees that grew thicker and thicker until they met the sky at the top in a high, shady grove. The grove seemed to beckon, offering seclusion . . .' and so on for several plush, purple, old-fashioned lines. The phrasing is overdone again, but again the ironic effect is good: this is the mere municipal park turned into a grand landscape by a child's sense of scale.

Unfortunately Roth sets out to rival James Joyce. This is never a good idea. Ira often discusses Joyce with Ecclesias, explaining how he once admired the Dubliner no end but now sees he was too preoccupied with the 'sordid surface' of life. Yet Ira's tale is full of Joycean squalor: violent fathers, perverts lurking in bushes, kids comparing anatomies, grown-ups with dirty little secrets, poverty, abuse of authority, lots of literary material that the FBI would have seized and burned back when Roth was young and Joyce was in his prime.

Roth then goes head-to-head with Joyce by staging a great epiphany for Ira in the park, directly mimicking Stephen Dedalus's vision on the beach in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Where Stephen saw the wading girl, the 'dappled seaborne clouds' and the rising moon, Ira sees the evening star rise and thinks, 'How do you say it? Before the pale blue twilight left your eyes you had to say it . . A star shines over Mt Morris Park hill. And it's getting dark, and it's getting chill . . .' The passage is not too bad, but it is not too original either. Against Stephen's sudden insight into art and life, Ira only offers us a fond childhood memory of his own precociousness with words.

Tapping away at Ecclesias, the older Ira-Roth congratulates himself on marrying a well-born, educated lady while Joyce had to make do with 'a functional illiterate' for a wife. Well, now. Nora Joyce obtained better school marks than Ira, as it happens. She enjoyed trashy romances, true, but then so did Jane Austen. She did find Ulysses too difficult and frank to persevere with, but so did Bernard Shaw. A functional illiterate is someone who can't even read a government form or the destination on a bus.

One wonders if Roth's long obscurity hasn't made him bitter. Ira claims to be 'too imbued with literary irony to allow of self-pity', but he makes sure to tell us of his past humiliation at being always the last one picked for basketball, and of his present agonies of rheumatoid arthritis; of how the Irish kids used to call him a filthy Yid in Harlem, and of how everyone now picks on Israel, 'the scapegoat of the world'. He keeps confiding to Ecclesias about an unspecified childhood trauma that blighted his life, but he never comes to the point and describes it; or if he does, the point gets lost in the general confusion.

Halfway through, Ira has a very curious attack of bile. He recalls an old schoolmaster who was 'a flagrant fag. What were they called today? Deviants, fairies, gays? (A pox on 'em for besmirching such a pretty word as gay.)' Pretty perhaps, but archaic and precious, and losing currency for decades before homosexuals picked it up. A writer might be expected to know that, and to refrain from this tired old commonplace of phone-in bigotry. Worse still, wishing a plague on American gays in the mid-Eighties is not just superfluous but a triumph of ill-will over sense.

From this first volume it doesn't look as though Mercy of a Rude Stream will come near to bearing comparison with A Portrait. Already it looks more like Stephen Hero, the overblown first draft that Joyce pruned and trained to make the later, greater work. Joyce burned most of the manuscript, but gave the surviving portion to his patron, Harriet Weaver, with the note: 'And very bad it is too.' Roth has, or had, talent, but he indulges himself too much, and at nearly 90 he has produced a remarkably immature work.

Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
The American stand-up Tig Notaro, who performed topless this week

Comedy...to show her mastectomy scars

Arts and Entertainment

TVNetflix gets cryptic

Arts and Entertainment
Claudia Winkleman is having another week off Strictly to care for her daughter
TV
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Children in Need is the BBC's UK charity. Since 1980 it has raised over £600 million to change the lives of disabled children and young people in the UK

TV review A moving film showing kids too busy to enjoy their youth

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his winning novel

Books Not even a Man Booker prize could save Richard Flanagan from a nomination

Arts and Entertainment
Bryan Cranston will play federal agent Robert Mazur in The Infiltrator

Books
Arts and Entertainment
Nicki Minaj's lyric video for 'Only' features Drake as the Pope, Minaj as a dictator and Chris Brown as an army leader

music 'It was inspired by Cartoon Network'

Arts and Entertainment
James Nesbit in The Missing on BBC 1

TV review

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Synagogue attack: Fear unites both sides of Jerusalem as minister warns restoring quiet could take 'months'

    Terror unites Jerusalem after synagogue attack

    Rising violence and increased police patrols have left residents of all faiths looking over their shoulders
    Medecins sans Frontieres: The Ebola crisis has them in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa

    'How do you carry on? You have to...'

    The Ebola crisis has Medecins sans Frontieres in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa
    Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

    Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

    Residents in what was Iraq’s safest city fear an increase in jihadist attacks, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Underwater photography competition winners 2014 - in pictures

    'Mysterious and inviting' shot of diver wins photography competition

    Stunning image of cenote in Mexico takes top prize
    Sir John Major: Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting

    Sir John Major hits out at theatres

    Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting
    Kicking Barbie's butt: How the growth of 3D printing enabled me to make an army of custom-made figurines

    Kicking Barbie's butt

    How the growth of 3D printing enabled toy-designer to make an army of custom-made figurines
    Will Smith's children have made waves with a gloriously over-the-top interview, but will their music match their musings?

    What are Jaden and Willow on about?

    Will Smith's children have made waves with a gloriously over-the-top interview, but will their music match their musings?
    Fridge gate: How George Osborne keeping his fridge padlocked shows a frosty side to shared spaces

    Cold war

    How George Osborne keeping his fridge padlocked shows a frosty side to shared spaces
    Stocking fillers: 10 best loo books

    Stocking fillers: 10 best loo books

    From dogs in cars to online etiquette, while away a few minutes in peace with one of these humorous, original and occasionally educational tomes
    Malky Mackay appointed Wigan manager: Three texts keep Scot’s rehabilitation on a knife-edge

    Three texts keep Mackay’s rehabilitation on a knife-edge

    New Wigan manager said all the right things - but until the FA’s verdict is delivered he is still on probation, says Ian Herbert
    Louis van Gaal: the liberal, the enemy and... err, the poet

    Louis van Gaal: the liberal, the enemy and... err, the poet

    ‘O, Louis’ is the plaintive title of a biography about the Dutchman. Ian Herbert looks at what it tells us about the Manchester United manager
    Isis in Iraq: Baghdad hails the retaking of the Baiji oil refinery as the start of the long fightback against the Islamist militants

    Isis takes a big step back

    Baghdad hails the retaking of the Baiji oil refinery as the start of the long fightback against the Islamist militants
    Bill Cosby: America’s beloved TV ‘dad’ or serial rapist?

    Bill Cosby: America’s beloved TV ‘dad’ or serial rapist?

    Ukip silk bow ties, Green Party T-shirts, and 'Iron Baby' romper suits: How to shop politically

    How to shop politically

    Ukip silk bow ties, Green Party T-shirts, and 'Iron Baby' romper suits
    The science of sex: What happens when science meets erotica

    Sex on the brain

    Fetishes, dominatrixes, kinks and erotica. They are subjects that should get the crowds flocking to a new exhibition at the Wellcome Collection