Mercy of a Rude Stream
A Star Shines over Mt. Morris Park is the first book in a projected multivolume work, Mercy of a Rude Stream, about New York Jewish immigrant life. Call It Sleep, Henry Roth’s only previous novel, received a mixed reception in 1934. Some critics favorably compared it to James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan novels and James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), whereas others reacted negatively, deeming it politically and socially incorrect. Call It Sleep was soon forgotten, until it was reprinted in 1964 and acclaimed as a memorable narrative of the American immigrant experience and a major twentieth century novel. It became a best-seller and remains in print. Roth’s new work has distinct echoes of the earlier novel in setting, period, and subject. A young boy is the central character in each, and both dramatize life in a dysfunctional household within a sometimes violent and usually alien urban world. Unlike Call It Sleep, however, the 1994 book has two narrative points of view. Young Ira’s realistic saga of his family and early adolescence is interspersed with interludes in which old Ira, writing an autobiographical novel about his early life, talks to his computer (dubbed Ecclesias) about his craft, recollections, and reflections on history, current events, and literary predecessors. The digressions aim to clarify and universalize Ira’s narrative, but his story is delineated sharply enough to stand by itself, as convincingly as Albert Schearl’s in Call It Sleep, and the asides diminish the narrative’s epic quality by calling attention to its episodic form and autobiographical realism.
Roth’s Stigman story starts in 1914, at the onset of World War I, and continues through the early 1920’s. The family conflicts are varied: those who are assimilated versus immigrants tied to European customs; incompatible husbands and wives, enduring dysfunctional marriages of convenience; youth rebelling against their elders; the religiously observant versus the secular; and the politically active (mainly socialists) vainly attempting to encourage the apolitical. Another pervasive and deeply felt conflict, between Jew and non-Jew, reinforces the social alienation that the Stigmans feel, even Ira, who develops close relationships with non-Jews. While attempting to accommodate to the culture and religions of a new country, the Stigmans also confront debilitating economic struggles.
The novel begins with the arrival in New York of Ira’s mother’s family from Galitzian Austro-Hungary. The patriarch Ben Zion Farb, his wife, and his eight children have come to America in stages, newcomers joining others as money becomes available for passage. Ira’s father Chaim, for example, preceded his wife and son and “scrimped . . . saved . . . stinted to the point of alimentary collapse” to accumulate fare money for them. Soon after his maternal grandparents arrive, Ira and his parents move from the East Side, traditional abode of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, to a Jewish neighborhood in Harlem, closer to Leah Stigman’s family and a milk shed where Chaim can obtain stock for his delivery route. Within months, however, they move to a non-Jewish neighborhood, since Leah is unhappy with an apartment “in the back” and craves one with windows “in the front.” They forsake electricity, hot running water, a private bathroom, and steam heat for a cold-water flat with “a window on the street to lean out of.” Chaim is amenable to the move because of the low rent and a nearby stable for his horse and wagon.
The early part of the novel is composed mainly of vignettes and anecdotes about family members, most of whom subsequently fade as Ira’s role expands and he becomes increasingly alienated from many of his newly arrived relatives, whose foreignness seems exaggerated because of the glaring contrast with his non-Jewish milieu. Naïvely, Ira had expected them to be “bountifully pre-Americanized”; instead, they are uncouth, speak an incomprehensible Yiddish, and make “lopsided and outlandish gestures.” The eight-year-old takes solace in solitude, going outside his ghetto to prosperous Fifth Avenue, with its stores, restaurants, and “self-satisfied strollers.” In Mt. Morris Park, whose paths lead to different New York worlds, he explores as a “self-sufficient, resourceful and intrepid” rover in the “visionary land,” sealing his covenant by sipping from a rivulet. Immediately after this solitary odyssey, Ira returns to his former neighborhood, telling old friends Heshy and Izzy that his new neighborhood is “full of lousy Irish goyim [who] call me Jew bestit all the time, an’ they wanna fight.” Though happy to see him, the pals treat him with a deference due visitors, and Ira realizes he is “a guest now among his own kind” and “excluded from belonging.”
The opening pages thus introduce Ira’s extended family, presenting character portrayals that lay the basis for subsequent problems and conflicts, while setting forth an overriding alienation theme: separation from friends, the impossibility of renewing relationships, embarrassment with an Old World family, taunting and threats endured at the hands of non-Jewish boys, and jarring experiences that introduce an...
(The entire section is 2176 words.)