Master of the Bad Name -- Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth

Article excerpt

Sabbath's Theater, by Philip Roth, Houghton Mifflin 1995, 451 pp. $24.95

Roth: "Read this, Doctor." (He hands Sabbath's Theater across the couch. It's a fat volume with a menstrual red coyer.) Spielvogel: (Six days later, spent, gasping.) "Oh, my Gott!" (He rests.)

***

The word "fucking" appears in the first sentence of Sabbath's Theater and in astonishing proliferation throughout the book, along with innumerable descriptions of no less explicit yet more esoteric varieties of sexual experience. This is not surprising coming from Philip Roth who has, through his decades' worth of alter egos or aliases--among others Neil Klugman, Alexander Portnoy, David Kepesh, Nathan Zuckerman, and Philip Roth--contrived one of the most remarkable series of variations on the theme of selfhood, especially sexual selfhood, of any writer alive. Yet although his new novel's protagonist is most definitely and defiantly male, Roth has transcended the boundaries of his gender. Here, the fingers of the main characters are no longer restrained to manipulating the organ of their creator, no longer traveling merely up and down, but in and out.

Appropriately, Mickey Sabbath is a puppeteer, his self-invented medium the seducing, cannibalizing finger puppet. Mickey loves these puppets, for "[t]here was nothing false or artificial about puppets, nor were they 'metaphors' for human beings. They were what they were." Sabbath works his art on the streets and is duly arrested for obscenity while performing at the gates of Columbia University, but is rescued by lawyers and patrons of the avant-arts, who subsidize The Indecent Theater of Manhattan. This is the early 1960s, and Mickey is married to Nikki, who abandons him while he's screwing Roseanna, with whom he flees the big city to isolation as assistant professor of puppeteering in some jerkwater college in Madamaska Falls, pop. 1,109, New England, America, where the years roll by. Sabbath's no metaphor for Roth, but his outrage against the public sensibility and his retreat to the bucolic countryside ring of the author as well as the protagonist.

The novel bounces back and forth in time, a Sabbatian odyssey of willful apostasy with each episode linked to a woman. Women, they come--and come-and go. In addition to the lost Nikki, there is Roseanna who also disappears, first into drink and then, worse, sobriety, while Sabbath fools with Kathy Goolsbee, a student whose tape of their dirty talk engenders a P.C. warlock hunt, and the wonderful Croatian hotelier, Drenka Ballich, whose final disappearance is due to cancer. "This shortish woman a little on the plump side, darkly pretty but with an oddly damaged-looking nose, this refugee who knew hardly anything of the world beyond her schoolgirl Split...seemed to Sabbath a woman of serious importance."

They are all important to Sabbath. Every woman he sees, he sees legs spread, welcoming. And Mickey is catholic; he loves them all, from a Latina maid to a menopausal mom, though there's also plenty of sniffing of adolescent panties. This is not loveless pornography, but passionate engagement with the bodily forms we inhabit and the smells and fluids we emit. Mickey Sabbath more than appreciates women; he adores them. In his own crude fashion, he respects them. Look at his description of a friend's wife, Michelle: "Hot flashes...Dipped, she is, in the very fire of fleeting time....Nothing quite touches Sabbath like these aging dishes with their promiscuous pasts and the pretty young daughters. Especially when they've still got it in them to laugh like this one....It's no fun burning on a pyre at dinner."

There is nearly unbearable pathos in Roth's devotion to threesomes, golden showers, whores and more whores. "Whores. Played a leading role in my life. Always felt at home with whores. Particularly fond of whores. The stew-like stink of those oniony parts. What has ever meant more to me? Real reason for existence then. …