Not the most pleasant read anyone of us will experience. Just under 500 pages describing the purposefully repugnant Mickey Sabbath. While the more prudish among us will simply stop reading, those of us who are more widely read ask ourselves the question Roth surely intended: aren’t we really all like Mickey Sabbath deep down?
And I can’t disagree with him. Deep down, we’re all repugnant, driven by animal desires and a self-interest that is utterly loathsome at times.
There’s another question here though: isn’t Mickey to be praised above the rest of us because he is, at least, honest and, in admitting he is as such and revelling in it, lives the fullest life that he possibly could while we live in fear of our peers and confine ourselves to the limitations of their expectations?
And Roth illustrates this with continuous flashbacks in Mickey’s memory to long-dead war hero brother Morty who everyone holds up as the ideal man and is, yet, subject to a moral code that most of us would esteem – courtesy, commitment, honour, hard work, etc., etc. – all the qualities that Mickey lacks entirely.
Thus is Mickey constantly conflicted, on the one hand driven to anarchic hedonism while on the other gazing up longingly to his brother on the moral pedestal he’s placed him on.
Anyway, the novel’s purpose aside, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Roth wrote this novel simply to provide himself with a playground for experiments in obscenity. There’s a lot of distasteful sex, for example, described, as far as I’m concerned, in completely unnecessary detail. Surely this is one area where our imaginations need as little help as possible.
In all, this seems to be the antithesis of American Pastoral and it struck me that Norman, an old friend Mickey shacks up with for a while, is probably Roth’s prototype for the Swede.
So, while this is no doubt an important book in terms of Roth’s development as a writer, it’s not very pleasant to read, and I think you can quite easily skip it without suffering any literary loss whatsoever.