Waste Books Ep. 2 - Sabbath’s Theater

February 24, 2017

This month we discussed the novel Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth, the account of a lecherous old man grappling with his past.

An overview of the book:

“Sabbath did not care to make people suffer beyond the point that he wanted them to suffer; he certainly didn’t want to make them suffer any more than made him happy.” At 64 years old, the Mickey Sabbath of Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater lusts for female flesh as if (and maybe it does) his life depends on it. The master puppeteer who once used his finger puppets as a dignified career is now riddled with the aches of osteoarthritis and finds old friends and a laundry list of lovers as his remaining fodder fora relentless and hilarious week of manipulation and shameless seduction.

A man with no credo, Sabbath finds his only purpose in life cheating on his wife with the voluptuous and equally prurient Drenka Balich, who at the novel’s beginning, succumbs unexpectedly from ovarian cancer leaving Sabbath with only memories of a sordid lifetime to parse. A man in bed with the days of youthful philandering in the merchant navy and ‘60s free love, Sabbath flees his unhappy New England home forNew York City and confronts the realization that at the end of the century nothing is left for him but a tête-à- tête with a haunted history of death and trauma.

Roth’s writing is that of a craftsmen, presenting characters and situations with a relaxed grace that embodies the loquacious confessions of a protagonist spilling his guts, but without even a paucity of contrition. He fleshes out Sabbath’s saga by providing rich flashbacks, initially overloading readers with a dense history of references to Sabbath’s terrible losses, but slowly unraveling who his disappeared Nikki is, how he lost his credibility with the off-off- Broadway crowd in the ‘70s, and why Drenka’s highway patrolmen of a son has it out for ol’ Mickey. The writing is informal but wise, tight but loose – like Mickey – the narrator delving into decades old anecdotes, ribald fantasies that are confused with reality, and a twenty-one- page footnote-cum- phone sex transcript. In other words, it’s an accessible yet serious novel and gets the blood flowing in all sorts of organs.

And yet, Sabbath isn’t merely a lecherous pervert nor a villain. Our anti-hero bears much more resemblance to a Falstaffian anti-hero, a doggedly resilient man who refuses to move on or grow up, a quality both redemptive and damning. The freedom he showcases is a guiltless one: a liberation driven by his guile, lust for life, and independence. And while his obdurate isolation may appear as a shortcoming, he understands that “it’s the best preparation I know of for death,” the central preoccupation of the novel. Touché Sabbath. We’ll see you in hell.

-Jordan Finn

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