Having read Roth's classic CALL IT SLEEP on the recommendation of a very enthusiastic friend, I couldn't wait to start his MERCY OF A RUDE STREAM series. A STAR SHINES OVER MT. MORRIS PARK is an example of fine writing. Sure, there is some ambiguity in Roth's perspective shifts from the narrator as a boy and as an older man, but what's a little ambiguity in the face of wonderful language, a driving plot, a totally sympathetic and believable narrator, and some great insights about human character? Read this book. I've already got the next three on order.
In 1934, the 28-year old Henry Roth published "Call It Sleep" which became a classic novel reflecting the lives of Jewish immigrants on the lower east side in the early part of the twentieth century. Almost sixty years later, in 1993, the elderly Roth published Volume I of his second novel, "Mercy of a Rude Stream" which was intended to be the first of a 6-volume set. He has titled this volume, "A Star Shines Over Mt. Morris Park" and tells the story of Ira Stigman, a Jewish child growing up in Harlem from 1914 until 1920. The title comes from a Shakespearean quotation which sees life as a tumultuous rude stream and as the novel proceeds, it is obvious that this is the thinking of the author. Although Roth insists that this book is not autobiographical, it is structured in a unique way. There is an aging author who is looking back on his childhood and struggling to put all his memories down on his new computer. These recollections are a break in the narrative and remind the reader of the inevitability of aging as he comments on his current rheumatoid arthritis and his disappointment in one of his sons. He'll then get back to the basic story of the young Ira Stigman and his coming of age. The reader can't help identifying with the young protagonist and seeing the world through his eyes. We live through the feelings of alienation and of trying to assimilate. We understand the tears of his grandmother as his uncle goes off to fight in World War I. We experience the conflicts between the old Jewish culture and the new American one. There is anti-semitism, racism and poverty. There is hope for the future and a rude sexual awakening. It's all the stuff that life is made of. And we live Ira Stigman's life right along with him. I did like reading this, but sometimes found myself becoming impatient. Perhaps its simply because the material itself is nothing fresh for me. Or perhaps there is something painful about the contrasting view of the young boy and the old man writing this book and trying to make peace with his life. I understand that Mr. Roth managed to publish two more volumes of this narrative before he died in 1995 at the age of 89. I don't know whether I want to read them or not. I feel very complete in having read this first volume which is 290 pages long. Recommended for those who are interested in this particular time in history, the immigrant culture, and Henry Roth in particular.
I bought and read this novel with no idea of its acclaim. I must say that I never expected to greatly enjoy a story of a boy growing up in Jewish Harlem and certainly did not expect to relate to the main character. Roth prods us to look at ourselves and see our own attempts to break free of our stereotypes. An absolutely great read.