Should I capitulate?

Four and a half years ago, I wrote about a passage in Claudia Roth Pierpoint’s biography of Philip Roth that some critics found incongruous:

To Roth, the most important scene – “the pumping heart of the book” – was almost entirely overlooked… It is a seemingly peripheral scene that involves Alex’s Uncle Hymie getting rid of the shiksa cheerleader his son adores…

Last time I didn’t quote any further. I should have, for the essential details:

…the determined father secretly tells the girl that his son has an incurable disease and is under doctor’s orders never to marry, then slips her some cash in case she didn’t fully understand.

Roth is drawing on a stereotype here. Not that stereotypes always deceive – I wouldn’t bet against them – but they aren’t particularly interesting by themselves. It’s unsettling that this ugly behavior occurs not in a pre-Enlightenment ghetto but in New Jersey in the mid-1940s, but children of immigrants have been known to ghettoize themselves by sticking to their ancestral prejudices. What’s interesting is the son’s reaction and the narrator’s response to it:

When the son finds out, he and his father have a furious, physically violent face-off, in which the boy is wrestled to the floor and cruelly subdued.

The boy was the third-best javelin thrower in New Jersey, we are told, and even amateur javelin throwers aren’t easy to subdue, especially for sedentary fifty-year-olds. This was obvious to Alex Portnoy (I’m quoting directly from the Complaint now):

For he knew – I surely knew it, even as a child – that his father had done something dishonorable. Was he then afraid to win? But why, when his own father had acted so vilely, and in Heshie’s behalf! Was it cowardice? fear? – or perhaps was it Heshie’s wisdom? […] Why did Heshie capitulate? And should I?

“And should I?” Doesn’t the whole book revolve around this – this, and “why should I?” The Complaint is anything but linear, and its apparent structure or unstructuredness can very well be at odds with its economy, as a committed reader should be able to understand. This ability is probably conditional on the reader’s sensitivity to injury inflicted on peripheral characters. Yes, it’s all satire and the narrator is an object of the satirizing and grotesque-ing (so is Heshie – a pole caster hitting on a baton manipulator: lay it on, man!) but shards from the broken javelin still hurt:

When Heshie was killed in the war, the only thing people could think to say to my Aunt Clara and my Uncle Hymie, to somehow mitigate the horror, to somehow console them in their grief, was, “At least he didn’t leave you with a shikse wife. At least he didn’t leave you with goyische children.”

Enough of Portnoy for now. I wonder if Roth’s other major novels also have excentric cores or clues. For American Pastoral, I would suggest the Joy Helpern episode.

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