Commentary Magazine

When He Is Bad

The kindest thing one can say about Philip Roth's new novel is that it is a brave mistake. It is easy enough to imagine how exasperated a writer of serious ambition must feel to find himself trapped, as Roth has been, by his own initial success, securely tucked away by the public into a special pigeonhole of genre writing. When She Was Good1 is Roth's strenuously willed effort to break out of the narrow precincts of Jewish urban and suburban life into the great open country of indigenous American fiction. Or rather, what used to be indigenous American fiction, since at a point in time when at least our literature has achieved something like a viable cultural pluralism, Roth must go back a generation and more to an age when one might still speak of a mainstream in the American novel. His models, therefore, are writers like Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis, Theodore Dreiser; correspondingly, his choice of materials seems peculiarly self-conscious and his treatment of them unhappily anachronistic.

All the action of When She Was Good takes place in and around a small town with the uncomfortably symbolic name of Liberty Center, somewhere north of Chicago “in the middle of America.” The characters are all simple, inexorably average townfolk, white Protestants (with the exception of one disreputable Catholic family) of Nordic or Anglo-Saxon stock. Flaxen hair, blue eyes, and snub noses tend to cluster at the visual center of the novel against a sketchy background of school corridors, football fields, lovers' lanes, back porches, coke machines, old jalopies, and whatever else is generally included in everyone's inventory of Hometown, U.S.A. Roth clearly knows about all this, as almost anyone who has grown up in America would, but there is little evidence in the novel that he knows it firsthand, with an eye for the nuances of character and social gesture among such people, in such a setting.

Everything that happens in the novel occurs on a plane of flat generality and in consequence virtually nothing is altogether credible. Much of this is the result of Roth's unfortunate narrative technique, to which I shall return, but it is also related to his habit of building on ready-made formulas instead of actually imagining his subject. The principal action takes place in the years after World War II, and while Roth elsewhere has convincingly recreated the feel of this period in a New Jersey Jewish neighborhood, his midwestern Protestants float in a colorless temporal ambiance that could be as easily attached to 1890 or 1920 as to 1950. Unable to conjure up the period in the minds and life-style of his characters, Roth falls back on the formulaic device of merely reciting recollected cultural passwords of the era—Milton Berle on television, Dick Haymes singing “It Might As Well Be Spring,” Harry Truman's loud sportshirts worn outside the trousers. Apart from this forced invocation of temporal setting, the use of mechanical formulas is less obtrusive but more pervasive: it is, in fact, the armature around which plot and characterization are wound.

For in his attempt to create a bred-in-the-bone American heroine and a paradigmatic American marriage, Roth bases every major invention of character and event on the most familiar of formulas about the two sexes: American men, in their obsession with manliness, are supposed to be insecure about their masculinity, or not really men; and American women are supposed to be covertly domineering, subtly or brutally unmanning their men. Lucy Nelson, the protagonist of When She Was Good, has lived till the age of eighteen with a weak-willed, ne'er-do-well drunkard father whom she despises and a grandfather outwardly more successful but inwardly composed of the same pulpy stuff as his son-in-law. Predictably, Lucy becomes pregnant by a local boy who is every inch the weakling that her own father is, but she decides to have him make an honest woman out of her in the hope that through marriage she will be able to make a man out of him. The result, of course, is just the opposite of what she intends: husband Roy remains attached to his pathetic daydreams, his boyish snacks of Hydrox cookies, the distant tug of mama's apron-strings, while Lucy's attempts to confront him with his “responsibilities” make him aware only of the crack of the riding whip in her voice, the gleam of the castrating knife in her fierce eye. Such situations can only go from bad to hideous, and the animosity between Roy and Lucy finally bursts out in a forty-page domestic explosion, complete with obscenities hurled, blows struck across the face, and the meddling of obnoxious relatives. At the conclusion of all this, Lucy, half-insane with the sense of the injustices done her, flees into the night (as the saying goes), stopping finally at the lovers' lane where Roy first seduced her and where she now freezes to death in the snow, the perfect frigid American wife to the bitter, melodramatic end.


Many hypersensitive Jewish readers of Goodbye, Columbus accused Roth of Jewish self-hatred, though there is scarcely evidence for that in the stories themselves. What became clearer in Letting Go was that Roth suffered rather from a general deficiency in the sympathetic imagination of humanity. In his new novel, this deficiency of sympathy expresses itself in a kind of vendetta against human nature, at least in its characteristic American manifestations. Humanity is divided into those who are hateful and those who are merely contemptible, with most of the men falling into the latter category and a few rare creatures, like Roy's cigar-smoking, lecherous Uncle Julian, belonging to both groups at once. The title apparently refers elliptically to the end of the nursery rhyme: it is when Lucy is good that she is at her most horrid, and this could be applied almost equally well to every other character in the book. The novel reads, then, like One Man's Family written with the satirical moroseness of a Swift and none of Swift's genius.

This implacable attitude of Roth toward his personages may explain why he has written some remarkable short stories but has not yet proved that he can write a novel at all. In a short story, character can be exposed; in a novel it must be revealed. A novelist should be at least capable of seeing all around his characters, even to their attractive sides; to put this another way, he has to imagine at least the possibility of change and development in his personages. The characters of When She Was Good, on the other hand, are fixed in one anguished posture which we are made to see again and again—the men forever set in weak-kneed knavery around the central figure of the woman who, palpably victimized by them, unpityingly makes them her victims. Repeated for three hundred pages, this unvaried image of humanity is simply tedious.

The same word is inevitable in any description of the style and narrative technique. All the narration in the book adheres closely to the point of view of one character or another, with Lucy's naturally predominating. But since the consciousness of these characters, as Roth conceives them, is depressingly empty, containing little more than clichés and truisms, the whole novel is walled in with clichés without a chink of light from a world of intelligence and imaginative life that must exist somewhere on the outside. There is no analysis of motive, no realization of physical scene or atmosphere, not even the consolation of an occasional metaphor that strikes fire in the imagination. The entire book is made up of flat, unexpressive, unperceptive dialogue, summaries of the same, and summarizing accounts of action which paraphrase the language that would be used by the characters themselves to report it. When She Was Good is thus a textbook illustration of the imitative fallacy. One might forgive on the grounds of imitation an occasional sentence like, “Lucy herself had always thought of Joe as one big blah,” but such sentences, in all their rhythmic deadness and all the stunted inadequacy of their adolescent vocabulary, comprise the whole texture of the novel's prose, from beginning to end. “No pity, no sympathy, no nothing,” Roy is reported as saying to Lucy at one crucial juncture. “He was willing to let bygones be bygones, and to start in clean and fresh, and be a lot better off for the experience—if she was.” Roth apparently does not give this to us in direct discourse because Roy's triteness in its original form would be just too embarrassing, but it is scarcely better in summary, and the prose throughout the novel never gets very much better than this.

A novelist, in one way or another, has to find a vocabulary to cope with the experience he presents, but Roth refuses to allow any adequacy of words either to his narrator or his characters. What Lucy wants is for people to be “innocent,” “good,” “just,” “true,” “strong,” while those who threaten her are “wicked,” “dirty,” “cruel,” “mean,” “weak”—and that is the full extent of the novel's moral vocabulary. The book wallows in authorially contrived misery with neither the language nor the imaginative vigor to make sense of that misery. Toward the end, Berta, Lucy's grandmother, confesses that “she was sick and tired of disorder and tragedy.” In style and substance, this marks the exact level of the novel's response to the human condition. When She Was Good conveys not—as Roth may have intended—the vision of an American Tragedy but rather a nagging, frustrated, irredeemably banal sense of being sick and tired of disorder and tragedy, which, however, stubbornly and invariably prevail.


1 Random House, 306 pp. $5.95.

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