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Sabbath’s Theater – Andy faces the Roth of Mickey, Or should that be the Mickey of Roth?

October 3, 2011

I was going to make it “Andy faces the Roth of Carn”. As in the Star Trek film, “The Wrath of Khan”, as in “Carn the Pies”, as in the team I follow in Australian Rules  football, as in the team that lost the AFL Grand Final on Saturday. But that would’ve made even less sense than most of the bullshit I write in this blog, so I didn’t make it that after all. But anyway.

“Carn”, incidentally,  is Australian vernacular for “Come on”. For the most part, these days, replaced by “Go”. As in “Go Pies”. Which is exactly what they didn’t do in the final quarter of Saturday’s game. But anyway.

“Pies”, incidentally, is short for “Magpies”, as in the black and white bird, as in the AFL team the Collingwood Magpies. It has nothing to do with putrid meat baked in pastry, although apparently you can buy those sorts of pies at the footy if you’re retarded enough to think eating one’s a good idea. But anyway.

Sabbath’s Theater is regarded by some, or was at the time of its publication (1995), as Philip Roth’s best novel. Better than Portnoy’s Complaint. Better than all those books he’s written about a main character called Philip Roth (my god, so clever). Better than the handful of novels he’s written about a main character called Zuckerman, who’s just a very, very thinly veiled version of Roth. Sabbath’s Theater is only the third of Roth’s novels that I’ve read. Three years ago Netty and I read Portnoy, and more than 20 years ago I read The Ghost Writer, possibly the first of the Zuckerman books. I seem to remember it was the first time I’d seen the word “cunt” in print. I read it at a time when, if memory serves, I thought Philip Roth and John Updike were the same person. As in, in years to come, I thought The Ghost Writer was an Updike book, not a Roth book. I can’t remember a lot about it, although I have a vague recollection of enjoying it. For some strange reason it is not longer on my bookshelves – and given there’s stuff on my bookshelves I read when I was eleven it’s odd that I chucked it.

But anyway. I think I can say Sabbath’s Theater is better than Portnoy. I had a quick flick back through Portnoy the other day. Yes, funny, yes, scatological, yes, obscene, yes, clever, yes, confronting. But also perhaps a little immature. Flicking through it reveals some of Roth’s (arguable) shortcomings at the time – lots of exclamation marks, lots of capitals,  lots of repetition.  Written almost 30 years later, Sabbath’s Theater may have its faults but it’s the work of a writer who’s far more comfortable with his subject matter and rather more confident with his talents. And what faults it has are probably down to taste. It’s been criticised for the sexual depravity being too in your face (discussing, at your lover’s deathbed, that time you and your lover pissed on each other for sexual gratification – the last conversation you and your dying lover will ever have – yeah, I can see that some people might find that a bit much). And for some tastes that may be the case. Doesn’t change the fact, though, that even with in-your-face sexual depravity Roth is a fucking genius. Oh, and wasn’t there poo on a glass-topped coffee table in Portnoy? Come on, how can a bit of wizz compete with poo on a coffee table in the depravity stakes? Although there’s also the bit where Sabbath pisses on his lover’s grave and imagines he’s pissing in the corpse’s mouth and the corpse is getting off on it.

OK. I’ll stop now.

Oh and yes, this post may contain spoilers. The deathbed piss talk I just referred to, for example, takes place in the last 30 pages of a 450-page novel (as a flashback. Yes, watersports chat in flashback. That’s how fucked up Roth is. Also, how genius). If the anticipation of two characters discussing the erotic nirvana they find in urinating upon one another is important to you, then perhaps it might be best if you stopped reading now.

Sabbath’s Theater is the story of Mickey Sabbath, a 64-year-old lecher dedicated bone and marrow to fucking. Cheating, betraying, abusing, not quite raping (arguably), seducing, sodomising, pissing, tonguing, fucking. And all those other words I can’t think of at this time of night. As the novel begins he’s heading towards the end of a long affair with the co-owner of the local Eastern European tavern. Drenka (of the piss talk, a woman whose sex drive leaves even Sabbath looking a bit amateurish at times) dies, and that prompts Mickey to abandon his reformed alcoholic of a second wife and proceed to unravel the life he’s lived and quite possibly annihilate the life he’s living now.

Mickey Sabbath is a fucking legend. There is very little, possibly nothing, to make this character sympathetic to the reader. And yet (unless you’re a born again Christian, in which case what the fuck are you doing reading this novel) Sabbath is somehow or other loveable. He does bad things of course – the Famous Five did bad things, although admittedly they didn’t to my knowledge involve ten thousand dollars and naked photographs of a former business colleague’s wife – and his words and actions often make you cringe (well, they often made me cringe, anyway). Nevertheless, Mickey Sabbath, with his arthritic puppeteer’s fingers and his insatiable cock and his extraordinarily perverted obsession with a teenager’s hopefully grubby underwear – Mickey’s fucking awesome. He’s a legend. As gargantuan monstrosities go he’s up there with the drunk dude from Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry and, um, Charles Bukowski’s Hank Chinaski. In fact Mickey reminded me of Hank on many occasions, and I had to keep reminding myself that Mickey wasn’t a drunk. The two of them, though, are unspeakably misanthropic. Somehow or other, though, Roth makes Sabbath more sympathetic and perhaps even more three-dimensional than Chinaski. The death of Sabbath’s older brother during World War II, and the effect this has on their parents – their mother in particular – and on Sabbath himself towards the end of the novel perhaps go some way towards explaining this. Bukowski would never have bothered with such sentimental nonsense. It’s just that sometimes what seems to be sentimental nonsense actually helps explain who and what we are, and in the hands of someone like Roth it transcends nonsense and becomes art.

Oh dear. I must be drunk, because I’m writing shit.

Sabbath’s Theater is filthy. It’s funny. It’s often filthy and funny at the same time. It’s surprisingly moving, given just how filthy and funny it is. And it’s hugely – well, it’s huge, but as well as that it’s hugely entertaining and hugely engaging and hugely thought-provoking. And it’s hugely impressive.

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