Review by Richard Klin
The production editor is the unsung hero of book publishing. Akin to a project manager, the production editor springs into action once the book is acquired, shepherding it through the many phases that lead to a tangible, finished book: hiring the copy editor and proofreader, making sure the cover is completed, incorporating the author’s changes, and so forth. I have a vested interest in casting the production editor as unsung hero, because I worked as one in various publishing houses. In the 1990s I was gainfully employed at St. Martin’s Press. Although only a scant two decades ago, it might as well have been the horse-and-buggy era. We used typewriters. We communicated by “interoffice memo.” And before a book went to press, we perused camera-ready copy, which meant just that—camera ready—not, as I discovered to my own and my office’s great chagrin, something that might be easily remedied when coffee spilled onto a page.
Henry Roth’s Mercy of a Rude Stream: A Star Shines Over Mt. Morris Park (1994) was one of my titles, which means that I was privy to an extraordinary moment in American literature. Roth, of course, was one of American literature’s great disappearing acts. Call It Sleep, his searing, anguished novel of Jewish immigrant life in New York City, had been published in 1934, after which it (and its author) essentially vanished from the literary landscape. Thirty years later, Call It Sleep was reissued and finally generated wide acclaim.
That rediscovery, however, did not yield a Henry Roth follow-up. For decades more, no second novel followed. In 1994, it was as if someone who had gone years without speaking was going to end a long, enigmatic silence. The acquiring editor, the estimable Robert Weil, had brought something truly exceptional to St. Martin’s Press; I felt privileged to work on it.
What the reader sees in the published book is pretty much what landed on my desk twenty years ago. Any editorial changes were infinitesimal. Nobody was inclined to muck with Henry Roth’s prose—nor did it need any tweaking. Roth had had plenty of time, presumably, to plot out and polish his second novel.
What struck me immediately was, of all things, the dedication. To Larry Fox, it began, and then continued: “So here’s a hand my trusty friend.” I had expected something more profound as Roth’s opening statement, perhaps some clue as to his long decades of silence. It was this Larry Fox—who might have been his lawyer, although I can’t remember—who got the historic nod, complete with those surprisingly cornball sentiments to his “trusty friend.” It seemed so pithy. So… anticlimactic.
There were three more Henry Roth books to come, but this was my only contribution to the Roth canon. (He had envisioned Mercy of a Rude Stream as one large, sweeping opus; accordingly, all of his post–Call It Sleep output bears the title Mercy of a Rude Stream with different, distinguishing subtitles that run to a total of four separate volumes.)
It is impossible to discuss this work without referencing Call It Sleep. In those decades after Call It Sleep, Roth’s writing had quite naturally lost a good deal of its intensity, but the follow-up is nonetheless first-rate. The terrain approximates that of Call It Sleep: the mean streets of Jewish immigrant New York around the time of World War I. Protagonist Ira Stigman evokes Call It Sleep’s tortured David Schearl. The familial ingredients are also familiar: harsh paterfamilias, smothering mother. Roth’s mastery of literary discomfort—misery on every level: familial, cultural, sexual—is evident in both works.
If some of the fizz had gone out of Roth’s writing, the inventiveness had not diminished. This novel skips back and forth over the decades, shifting from the immigrant locus to the modern-day, aged Ira. The elderly Ira’s ruminations—set off in a different, more utilitarian typeface—are fanciful back-and-forths between him and his computer, whom he’s dubbed Ecclesias. It’s a strikingly innovative touch and surprisingly quirky.
The novel had some minor issues that required attention, and at some point I composed a query letter and sent it to Henry Roth. It was the closest contact I would have with him. What I really wanted to ask him, of course, was everyone’s question: Why? Why the decades-long lack of output? I did allow myself one slight deviation from the standard query letter, tacking on a brief postscript where I told him how much I’d enjoyed this new book. Roth returned my queries, all answered. Next to my addendum, scrawled in a feeble, old man’s handwriting, was a final message: Thank you.
Richard Klin is the author of Something to Say, a series of profiles of various artists discussing the intersection of art and politics, and Abstract Expressionism for Beginners (2016). His work has been featured on NPR’s All Things Considered and has appeared in the Brooklyn Rail, the Forward, January, Jewish Currents, and others.