Sunday, November 30, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 252: Philip Roth, You Can’t Tell a Man by the Song He Sings (#252) (Catching up)

Philip Roth, "You Can’t Tell a Man by the Song He Sings" (1959) from Philip Roth: Novels & Stories 1959–1962:

Here's where I tell you, with a palpably false nonchalant air, that I took a class taught by Philip Roth at Bard College. The topic: the novels of Philip Roth. At that time, it offended my sense of literary propriety to let an author both write the books and then provide commentary on them; but damn if I would let that chance slip by.

(Or, as one friend who didn't get into the class asked, "Did you play the Jew card in your application essay?" Yes, yes, I did. I oughta get something for six-hours a week in Hebrew school.)

And this story is very Rothian. He's not what you'd call a plot-driven writer. Most of his books revolve around very little incident and very much character examination. So here, our first incident is a guy cheating on a personality quiz, a comedy chestnut I've used myself. See, our ex-con and attempted-straight arrow Alberto is so tightly wound about trying to go straight, that he'll lie to do it.

And this event is key because... well, OK, it's not really key: it puts the narrator and Albie together, they end up as friends, and then... well, it's not like anything really big happens because of that friendship. At one point, the real straight arrow narrator gets sent to the principal's office, where he's confronted with his permanent record, which leads to a small thematic climax with this one teacher who got fired because he was a Communist.

Right, so, not a lot happens plot-wise: three kids and one teacher meet and interact in a number of scenes. But thematically and character-wise, it's a rich stew of repeating images and some fun writing. For instance, the narrator--while a super-straight arrow--is friends with the two ex-juvies, who are pretty different from each other.
Where Albie was a hippopotamus, an ox, Duke was reptilian. Me? I don’t know; it is easy to spot the animal in one’s fellows
Which is a sentence that oughter be tweeted.

(I don't know why, but something about reading New Jersey/New York fiction makes me want to avoid saying "ought to" instead of "oughta" and "oughter.")

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