Letting Go is a book about literature, filled with literary references. The characters in the novel partially define themselves by the books that they have read. The novel focuses on the young academic crowd of the decade of the 1950’s—particularly on three characters: Gabe Wallach, a young instructor in the humanities, and his friends Paul and Libby Herz.
Apparently, Philip Roth intended Gabe to be a Jamesian hero: the man with an independent income, living a good life, with a career that he cares about, but always wrestling with a vague guilt. The story of Gabe’s tribulations with his family and friends is complex and compassionate, but the telling often is bogged down in excessive detail. Roth displays here, as he would again and again throughout his career, his infallible ear for American and Jewish-American dialogue. Too much of a good thing, however, can weigh down the best-conceived story.
Much of the story is told in flashbacks, as the reader learns how the characters reached the points where the narrative picks them up. The lives of these characters have not been easy. The Herzes, particularly, have been disaster-prone. A mixed marriage (Paul is Jewish, Libby, Catholic) has built-in stresses, but these are part of a larger pattern: The Herzes struggle endlessly with every aspect of their lives. Although Libby is Catholic, when she becomes pregnant she has to have an abortion because of their economic situation and her own precarious health. Roth treats this episode at great length and with a Dreiserian relentlessness that would surprise readers who know him only by his later fiction.
Indeed, Roth has a remarkable gift for representing the nightmarish disasters that befall those who leave themselves defenseless by living with what he considers complete sincerity. The book is often powerful, as well as brilliantly perceptive. At the end, however, the reader is not certain whether Roth likes his characters—or even if he likes humanity very much. Although the reader follows Gabe and his friends from Iowa, where they were graduate students, to Chicago and New York, and learns about all the sordid details of their lives, they remain somewhat unconvincing as human beings.