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Call it Sleep by Henry Roth
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Call it Sleep (1934)

by Henry Roth

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Call It Sleep is the story of an Austrian-Jewish immigrant family in New York in the early part of the twentieth century. Six-year-old David Schearl has a close and loving relationship with his mother Genya, but his father Albert is aloof, resentful and angry toward his wife and son. David's development takes place between fear of his father's potential violence and the degradation of life in the streets of the tenement slums. After the family has begun settling into their life in New York, Genya's sister Bertha arrives from Austria to stay with them. Bertha's coarse and uninhibited nature offends Albert, and her presence in the home renews and exacerbates the tension in the family's relations.

Listening to conversations between Genya and Bertha, David begins to pick up hints that his mother may have had a passionate affair with a non-Jewish Austrian man before marrying Albert. David imagines the romantic setting "in the corn fields" where the pair would secretly meet. Bertha leaves the Schearl household when she marries her dentist, Nathan. She and Nathan open a candy store where they live with Nathan's two daughters, Polly and Esther.

David begins his religious education and is quickly identified by his rabbi teacher, Reb Yidel, as an exceptional student of Hebrew. David becomes fascinated with the story of Isaiah 6 after he hears the rabbi translate the passage for an older student; specifically, the image of an angel holding a hot coal to Isaiah's lips and cleansing his sin.

During the Passover holiday, David encounters some older truant children who force him to accompany them and drop a piece of zinc onto a live trolley-car rail. The electrical power released from this becomes associated in David's mind with the power of God and Isaiah's coal.

Meanwhile, Albert has taken a job as a milk delivery man. David, accompanying his father one day, sees Albert brutally whip a man who attempts to steal some of the milk bottles, possibly killing him.

David meets and becomes infatuated with an older Catholic boy named Leo. Leo takes advantage of David's friendship, and offers him a rosary — which David believes to have special powers of protection — in exchange for the chance to meet David's step-cousins, Polly and Esther. Leo takes Esther into the basement of the candy store and rapes her.

David is thrown into an agitated state. He goes to Reb Yidel and fabricates a story, telling him that Genya is actually his aunt, his true mother is dead, and that he is the son of her affair with the non-Jewish man. Meanwhile, Polly tells Bertha and Nathan about what Leo did with Esther. As the rabbi goes to the Schearl household to inform Genya and Albert of what David told him, Bertha begs Nathan not to confront Albert about David's role in Leo's actions. Nathan goes anyway, although he fears Albert's wrath as well.

After Reb Yidel relates David's story to Genya and Albert, David arrives at the apartment. Albert begins to reveal what he has suspected about David's birth. He tells Genya that their marriage is a sham, arranged to make one sin cover up the other — her affair, which was kept secret — against his sin, allowing his abusive father to be gored by a bull, widely known in the Austrian village they left. Despite Genya's denials, Albert reaffirms his belief in his version of the story. He declares that David is not his son but the product of Genya's affair.

At that moment, Nathan and Bertha arrive. Nathan hesitates at the moment of speaking his mind under Albert's cold fury, but David steps forward to confess to his parents of his part in what took place. He gives his father the whip that was used on the would-be milk thief. As Albert reaches the height of his enraged frenzy, he discovers the rosary that David possesses, believing it to be a sign that proves his suspicions. Albert makes as if to kill his son with the whip.

As the others restrain Albert, David flees the apartment and returns to the electrified rail. This time, he touches the rail with his foot and receives an enormous electric shock. Incapacitated, he is discovered by nearby tavern patrons and returned home by a policeman. When his parents are informed what happened, Albert appears remorseful and compassionate toward his son for the first time. As his mother takes him into her arms, David experiences a feeling such that "he might as well call it sleep".

relations.

Listening to conversations between Genya and Bertha, David begins to pick up hints that his mother may have had a passionate affair with a non-Jewish Austrian man before marrying Albert. David imagines the romantic setting "in the corn fields" where the pair would secretly meet. Bertha leaves the Schearl household when she marries her dentist, Nathan. She and Nathan open a candy store where they live with Nathan's two daughters, Polly and Esther.

David begins his religious education and is quickly identified by his rabbi teacher, Reb Yidel, as an exceptional student of Hebrew. David becomes fascinated with the story of Isaiah 6 after he hears the rabbi translate the passage for an older student; specifically, the image of an angel holding a hot coal to Isaiah's lips and cleansing his sin.

During the Passover holiday, David encounters some older truant children who force him to accompany them and drop a piece of zinc onto a live trolley-car rail. The electrical power released from this becomes associated in David's mind with the power of God and Isaiah's coal.

Meanwhile, Albert has taken a job as a milk delivery man. David, accompanying his father one day, sees Albert brutally whip a man who attempts to steal some of the milk bottles, possibly killing him.

David meets and becomes infatuated with an older Catholic boy named Leo. Leo takes advantage of David's friendship, and offers him a rosary — which David believes to have special powers of protection — in exchange for the chance to meet David's step-cousins, Polly and Esther. Leo takes Esther into the basement of the candy store and rapes her.

David is thrown into an agitated state. He goes to Reb Yidel and fabricates a story, telling him that Genya is actually his aunt, his true mother is dead, and that he is the son of her affair with the non-Jewish man. Meanwhile, Polly tells Bertha and Nathan about what Leo did with Esther. As the rabbi goes to the Schearl household to inform Genya and Albert of what David told him, Bertha begs Nathan not to confront Albert about David's role in Leo's actions. Nathan goes anyway, although he fears Albert's wrath as well.

After Reb Yidel relates David's story to Genya and Albert, David arrives at the apartment. Albert begins to reveal what he has suspected about David's birth. He tells Genya that their marriage is a sham, arranged to make one sin cover up the other — her affair, which was kept secret — against his sin, allowing his abusive father to be gored by a bull, widely known in the Austrian village they left. Despite Genya's denials, Albert reaffirms his belief in his version of the story. He declares that David is not his son but the product of Genya's affair.

At that moment, Nathan and Bertha arrive. Nathan hesitates at the moment of speaking his mind under Albert's cold fury, but David steps forward to confess to his parents of his part in what took place. He gives his father the whip that was used on the would-be milk thief. As Albert reaches the height of his enraged frenzy, he discovers the rosary that David possesses, believing it to be a sign that proves his suspicions. Albert makes as if to kill his son with the whip.

As the others restrain Albert, David flees the apartment and returns to the electrified rail. This time, he touches the rail with his foot and receives an enormous electric shock. Incapacitated, he is discovered by nearby tavern patrons and returned home by a policeman. When his parents are informed what happened, Albert appears remorseful and compassionate toward his son for the first time. As his mother takes him into her arms, David experiences a feeling such that "he might as well call it sleep".
1 vote bostonwendym | Mar 3, 2016 |
A haunting story of childhood trauma and depression. Roth succeeds in recreating what it's like growing up and not always understanding everything we witness. Also vividly portrays life in New York as an immigrant. ( )
1 vote dbsovereign | Jan 26, 2016 |
Growing up in an immigrant family in New York. A very good read which leads to an understanding of how our ancestors lived in an alien culture and became assimilated into the fabric of America. ( )
1 vote JVioland | Jul 14, 2014 |
This is a classic story of immigrants, people who take the chance of not only a new country but a new way of life. Albert has come to New York City from rural eastern Europe, and when the book opens he has been in the city for over a year, and meets his wife and toddler son David on the ship that has brought them after him.

After this first meeting, we see the story through David's childish viewpoint: his reactions to his hostile father and loving mother, his fear of dark places like the cellar, the normal cruelty of children, the terror of being lost, of not being understood, of not understanding what goes on around him. Some of this is just being a child, some the hostility that surrounds him, only alleviated by his doting mother.

And through him, we see the strains on the adults in his life: his father's uncontrollable temper and paranoia drives him from one printing house to another until he gives up the trade altogether, preferring to work alone. His view of his mother is colored by men's reactions to her (written in the thirties, the book blatantly exhales the Freudian atmosphere of the time) and his need for her. Roth uses a sort of stream of consciousness to portray David's confusion, questioning, pain and fear. Plenty of all of that.

Language plays a huge role in the story. David's parents speak Yiddish, the street kids a mix of Yiddish and English, the non-Jews in the story the dialects of English of the Polish and Irish immigrants around him. Lack of English limits his mother's domain, limits his understanding of the world beyond his few blocks of home. (One of my fellow book club readers had listened to it and found the dialects much easier to understand when spoken than when transliterated, and I'm sure that would have helped.)

David is seeking something in the light, some sort of freedom and redemption that he doesn't understand but yearns for. The ending is explosive.

So it is a deep, non-trivial story. I had expected to like it more. The middle somehow wore me out, with its stereotypical psychology, then the end, with its flashes of almost inappropriate comedy and desperate fury, flew by. Some of the descriptive writing was gorgeous, some of the dialog too beautiful to be quite believable.

I found myself wishing my father were still alive to read it with me. He was a Brownsville boy himself, although of a slightly later era, and I would have learned more about him if we could have shared this story. ( )
1 vote ffortsa | Jul 10, 2014 |
I am always amazed at the bibliofates who direct me to books. No matter how randomly I choose the books I read, these fates always seem to bring a shape to the story of my reading. I’ve been reading through stacks of books that have lingered on my shelves for some time without attention, either because they were once recommended to me or because they hold a place on a ‘best’ list. The last few stacks I’ve chosen alphabetically, grabbing title off my shelves by the author’s last name, without any regard to their topic or style. Then, I chose at random between about 13 books in the stack. The last three I read are Henry Roth’s [Call It Sleep], a book about an Jewish immigrant boy in New York City; Yann Martel’s [Life of Pi], which recounts the story of a young Indian boy trapped on a life boat with a tiger; and Charles Portis’ [True Grit], the tale of a young girl avenging her father’s murder in the Old West territory of Arkansas and Oklahoma. The books were published in different decades, separated by at least a couple of decades, by authors from vastly different ethnic and social backgrounds. But I couldn’t have chosen three books that share more in common if I’d tried.

How do we see ourselves and the events of our lives? How do they shape us into the people we are? How do the people we already are affect how we react to watershed moments? All of these books deal with such questions – reading [Call It Slepp] first, helped to focus my own thoughts on the topic. Though not told in his personal voice, [Call It Sleep] centers on David Schearl, adolescent Jewish boy growing up on New York’s Lower East Side. David is a recent immigrant, having traveled over with his doting mother, Genya, to join his father, Albert. David has to learn to navigate life in America on the lower reaches of the economic spectrum and as member of a reviled minority. Added to this, he has to deal with an explosively abusive father. There are episodes common to any young man’s life, building self-esteem and making friends. But it is the unique quality of his life, as reflected in the trials of his families struggle to make ends meet and to assimilate into such a foreign culture, that resonate more powerfully. David’s character is constructed by Roth to be such an outsider, looking in from the outside of poverty and race, that his story helps us to understand our own internal feelings of isolation and universal yearnings to belong.

Roth’s genius is present nowhere more powerfully than in David’s battle to make sense of the swirling religious powers influences around him. His father is Jewish by birth primarily but not in so much in practice and his mother is the product of very strict religious family, though she herself has lost her faith. They enlist David with a local Rabbi to develop a sense of history and solidarity with his ethnicity. While David shows a knack for learning Hebrew text, he befriends a young Catholic boy who begins to educate him on the death of Christ. David fights to make sense of the conflicting deities of Judaism and Christianity, deeply hoping to connect a unifying and guiding force that he feels without being able to understand.

Roth’s novel is deeply affecting. The streets of his New York boil with the smells and the feel of a different time and place. You can feel the diverse cultures of the Lower East Side roiling into something new and different with each day that passes on the page.

Ultimately, even though David’s voice is not the narrative force, it is his perspective that drives the story, and everything that he faces is viewed through his eyes. His choices make sense only through the filter how he battles his fears, of his father and of the foreign city around him. When he makes a stand against these forces, you see how he is baptized in his own courage to become something new, something that is related to what he was before but also related to the new things around him.

Bottom Line: Vibrant immigrant life, told through the eyes of a young Jewish boy becoming something new on the grimy streets of a New York City neighborhood.

4 ½ bones!!!!! ( )
3 vote blackdogbooks | Jun 7, 2014 |
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» Add other authors (15 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Roth, Henryprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Allen, WalterAfterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Roth, WalterAfterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Standing before the kitchen sink and regarding the bright brass faucets that gleamed so far away, each with a bead of water at its nose, slowly swelling, falling, David again became aware that this world had been created without thought of him.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0312424124, Paperback)

When Henry Roth published his debut novel Call It Sleep in 1934, it was greeted with considerable critical acclaim though, in those troubled times, lackluster sales. Only with its paperback publication thirty years later did this novel receive the recognition it deserves—--and still enjoys. Having sold-to-date millions of copies worldwide, Call It Sleep is the magnificent story of David Schearl, the “dangerously imaginative” child coming of age in the slums of New York.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:08:53 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

"When Henry Roth published his debut novel Call It Sleep in 1934, it was greeted with considerable critical acclaim, though, in those troubled times, lackluster sales. Only with its paperback publication thirty years later did this novel receive the recognition it deserves - and still enjoys. Having sold to date millions of copies worldwide, Call It Sleep is the story of David Schearl, the "dangerously imaginative" child coming of age in the slums of New York"--P. [4] of cover.… (more)

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