I have finally finished Call it Sleep by Henry Roth, but it isn’t just the book’s fault – at least some of the responsibility lies with our new puppy who, especially in November, did not leave me with enough energy to read. Anyway, I’m finally done and I’m glad I read it.
I must say that at first I struggled to care. Roth does an excellent job of creating one little boy’s world in early 1900s NYC but I found his parents unlikable and, as someone who had a rather nice childhood, I had trouble caring about his miserable but not truly horrible childhood. (I say ‘not truly horrible’ only in relation to the earliest parts of the book.)
But the older David gets, the easier it is to care about him. And the final section of the book comes alive with Roth’s excellent depiction of the various New York dialects.
It is in that final section of the book where it actually feels like something may happen – as something indeed does – and there is a palpable sense of tension when David’s actions get him into trouble. This makes slog through the childhood part worthwhile.
I worried that the climax – otherwise extremely well-rendered even if it feels outside of the scope of the novel – would be a little too cute, but the brief and affecting denouement solves whatever problem I would have had, had Roth chosen not to include that denouement.
Not one of the great novels of the twentieth century, as so many have claimed. And I suspect it’s place on these Top 100 lists has a lot to do with the fact that the novel is set in New York City, and a similar novel set elsewhere may have attained less notice. But still a good book and worth your time.