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July 07, 1995 - Image 34

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1995-07-07

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

Summer ReQding,

Hurtling Into
Awareness

HENRY ROTH

Our hero heads into new territory aboard
an elevated train.

C

ole Porter had it right: "There's no cure like
travel to help us unravel the worries of living
today" Travel off our own beaten paths,
literally or, in this case, literately.
Cheerfully detouring around cyberspace as
the destination of choice, we embrace the good old
pleasures for the good old summertime — the
pleasures of curling up with a good book.
We bring you a work mixing memoir and fiction, on
the "El" — the elevated stretch of New York City's
subway system — Henry Roth recaptures his coming
of age in the 1920s. The trip is from his newly
published A Diving Rock on the Hudson.
Then, a trip into Melvin Jules Bukiet's surrealistic
world of a Holocaust researcher's obsessive final
moments. It's from his book of short stories, While the
Messiah Tarries.
And for younger readers, a journey back in time,
Sara Eshel's short story set in Israel in 1948, just at
c)
Lu the end of the British Mandate.
So, defying the limits of time, space, religion and race
- three excursions into summer reading.

Ci)

LLJ

LU

34

eedy little storefronts had al-
ready become incandescent
in the shadow of the El, in
the premature twilight of
the El, their wares becom-
ing more distinct as the
train slowed down before a
station. Cross streets
opened up more leisurely, too, presented
their grubby vistas a little longer, before the
drab, monotonous brick walls, inset with
fire escape and window glass, engulfed them
again. In the succession of bleary tenement
facades, a worn old man, a blowsy house-
wife, a child, looked out from behind closed
windows. How random they appeared, like
those flat chesspieces in the slits of flat chess
cards. Random, forlorn, keeping lackluster
vigil for some kind of fulfillment that Ira
was certain would never be realized.
Pity stirred him, pity for them, pity for
self, a peculiarly generalized pity; and as
the train entered the station, Ira wondered
whether Larry noticed the same things he
did, and felt the same way. But no, Larry
was talking about how much he liked to use
his hands, that he had good hands for den-
tistry — he splayed out his strong white fin-
gers. In a strange, confused way, Ira became
conscious of a sense of superiority, about
those same things Larry had introduced
him to only — only when? A few weeks ago?
The modern, the disclosure of the mood of
the contemporary, his time, its latencies,
the way the street, the buildings, yes, the
imago — cast off its stultifying shell. Odd.
He had never thought about that before;
who cared about that before? Not when he
was part of Billy's world, the outdoors, the
gun club world. But that goddamn football,
that freak explosion of temper, yeah, freak,
and not so freak. As if it were the cost of his
new kind of liberty, somber liberty. He was
freer than Larry, that was it: nothing to
reckon with, nothing to hold him back,
family, warmth, what did he call it?
Gematlichkeit. Comfort. Ease. Dental of-
fice. Fees. It rhymed. Hell, he — the child
in black armor — had broken barriers Larry
never dreamed of ... had committed, Jesus,
horrendous, transpontine acts — nutty
name, nutty acts — and paid for them in
toll of dread.
Once more the trainman stepped out of
the car door, took his post at the gate han-
dles. You could almost smell the urine in
the toilets when the train came to a halt.
"So don't you have any friends?" Ira

asked. "You know, I mean, how come you
don't have friends like yourself?"
"I think I told you."
"Oh, yeah, there I go, not listening again.
No, I remember."
"Yes. Some of them — my age — they're
a lot richer than I am — I mean my family
— but they're climbers, and I hate climbers."
"Yeah? I thought you had to be poorer to
be a climber."
"Oh, no. That's not always the case.
They're just vulgar, that's all. They have no
class, you know what I mean? Nearly every-
one I know my age — it's clear, it's obvious:
they try so hard to ingratiate themselves.
They're Jewish, but pretentious and taste-
less — and so-o middle class." Larry drooped
in comic despair. "So conventional, so ma-
terial. Ah! I can't tolerate them, the way
they equate everything to money. Dollars
and sex!" He suddenly straightened up for
emphasis. "And that's no joke, either.
They've got cars too, big allowances.
Murray, for example — he's a freshman at
Columbia — wants me to go everywhere
with him. But God! You'd go crazy listen-
ing to him about his fraternity, tuxedos and
proms, the heiresses he's dated, and how
much rent their folks pay for their apart-
ments on Central Park West. The pull they
have at City Hall. His father's investments.
His father's Packard limousine. A chauf-
feur, too. And yes, the law degree Murray
expects is going to make him an indepen-
dent millionaire by the time he's 30. Who
cares about that? The guy is still vulgar."
"Yeah?" Ira only half-understood. Mid-
dle class, what did that mean? Those rich
people? More than just that, they had hot
water, steam heat, like almost everybody
who lived west of Park Avenue in Harlem,
real allrightniks, as Jews said. And they
had cars, too. Chauffeurs. No, there was
something more than that. He had read the
term before in some book, but only now did
the term come to life. They were more like
the people he delivered fancy groceries to,
or steamer baskets, when he worked for
Park & Tilford, people who lived on River-
side Drive or West End, whose dumbwaiter
ropes he pulled . But why was Larry so dis-
paraging about them? What was wrong
with being in the middle class? Didn't every-
body on 119th Street, everybody Jewish, try
to climb up — yeah, "climber," that was the
word Larry used — climb out of the dumps
they lived in, the coldwater flats like his?
Success, yeah, all his relatives strove for

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