Mar. 19, 2011

To a Young Son

by June Robertson Beisch

Today I passed your room
and you were slowly quietly
combing your hair.
It was a pleasant, calm moment.
I felt the silence of the room
and could almost hear you growing.
You combed without a mirror,
your eyes distant and pale,
your head slowly nodding
like the head of a stroked animal.

Xerxes the King sent out a spy
who returned to camp, astonished to say
that the Spartans were all stripped to the waist
their bodies gleaming in the Aegean sun
and they were all carefully combing their hair.
The king was afraid then.
The Spartans were preparing to die.

I turn slowly from your doorway
and return to the linen closet where I
will fold this memory in my heart
among everything that is clean and fresh and white.

"To a Young Son" by June Beisch, from Fatherless Woman. © Cape Cod Literary Press, 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of novelist Philip Roth, (books by this author) born in Newark, New Jersey (1933). He said: "Far from being the classic period of explosion and tempestuous growth, my adolescence was more or less a period of suspended animation. After the victories of an exuberant and spirited childhood — lived out against the dramatic background of America's participation in World War II — I was to cool down considerably until I went off to college in 1950. [...] From age 12, when I entered high school, to age 16, when I graduated, I was by and large a good, responsible, well-behaved boy. [...] The best of adolescence was the intense male friendships — not only because of the cozy feelings of camaraderie they afforded boys coming unstuck from their close-knit families, but because of the opportunity they provided for uncensored talk. These marathon conversations, characterized often by raucous discussions of hoped-for sexual adventure and by all sorts of anarchic joking, were typically conducted, however, in the confines of a parked car — two, three, four, or five of us in a single steel enclosure just about the size and shape of a prison cell, and similarly set apart from ordinary human society."

After college, when he was 26 years old and teaching at the University of Chicago, he published his first book, a classic story of adolescence, the novella Goodbye, Columbus (1959). It won the National Book Award. In the 50-plus years since, Roth has published more than 30 books, including Portnoy's Complaint (1969) and American Pastoral (1997). He has continued to win major awards: another National Book Award, three PEN/Faulkner Awards, two National Book Critics Circle Awards, and a Pulitzer Prize.

Roth is turning 78 today, and since he turned 60, he has been incredibly productive, publishing 10 novels. His last four books have all been short, and he has gathered them together as a group, which he calls Nemeses. Specifically, he refers to Nemeses as "a quartet," and these final books have caused people to draw comparisons with T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets, with Beethoven's late string quartets, and with Shakespeare's final four plays.

In 2006, he published Everyman, less than 200 pages. He was inspired by a series of 15th-century morality plays of the same name. Roth said: "The moral was always 'Work hard and get into heaven,' 'Be a good Christian or go to hell.' Everyman is the main character and he gets a visit from Death. He thinks it's some sort of messenger, but Death says, 'I am Death' and Everyman's answer is the first great line in English drama: 'Oh, Death, thou comest when I had thee least in mind.'" So Roth wrote a short novel, not about a good Christian but about a man facing death who doesn't believe in God. In it, he wrote: "Old age isn't a battle, old age is a massacre." The main character is 71 years old, and has been married and divorced three times — he is leaving behind two sons who hate him, sons from his first marriage when he abandoned their mother; and a daughter who loves him, from his second, although he cheated on her mother. He is a talented painter who chose to pursue a career in advertising instead, to make more money. At the end of his life, he stops communicating with his patient, caring older brother because he is jealous of his brother's good health. The novel opens with the man's funeral, and then moves through scenes is his life, telling the stories of deaths he witnessed and physical pain, but also the pleasures of his body. He spends his last few years in a retirement home, filled with sexual desire but without an outlet for it, teaching painting classes to other elderly people. Roth wrote: "Was the best of old age just that — the longing for the best of boyhood, for the tubular sprout that was then his body and that rode the waves from way out where they began to build, rode them with his arms pointed like an arrowhead and the skinny rest of him following behind like the arrow's shaft, rode them all the way in to where his rib cage scraped against the tiny sharp pebbles and jagged clamshells and pulverized seashells at the edge of the shore and he hustled to his feet and hurriedly turned and went lurching through the low surf until it was knee high and deep enough for him to plunge in and begin swimming madly out to the rising breakers — into the advancing, green Atlantic, rolling unstoppably toward him like the obstinate fact of the future — and, if he was lucky, make it there in time to catch the next big wave and then the next and the next and the next until from the low slant of inland sunlight glittering across the water he knew it was time to go."

After Everyman was Indignation (2008), the story of Marcus Messner. As another character says to him: "You really are a nice boy, Marcus. Irreproachable. Marcus the well-washed, neatly dressed boy. You do the right thing in the end." Marcus is the narrator of Indignation, and early on we learn that he is dead. Born and bred in New Jersey, Marcus transfers to Winesburg College in Ohio to get away from his overbearing family. There he falls for a girl named Olivia, who is beautiful and smart but has struggled with alcoholism and tried to commit suicide. He argues with a series of roommates and ends up living alone. He also gets in trouble with the Dean of Students for refusing to attend chapel, and after paying another student to go in his place, he gets kicked out altogether. It is the era of the Korean War, and Marcus had joined the ROTC assuming he would graduate at the top of his class and be put in intelligence work. Instead, after getting kicked out of college, he is assigned to regular combat duty and killed. Roth wrote: "Marcus Messner, 1932–1952, the only one of his classmates unfortunate enough to be killed in the Korean War, which ended with the signing of an armistice agreement on July 27, 1953, 11 full months before Marcus, had he been able to stomach chapel and keep his mouth shut, would have received his undergraduate degree from Winesburg College — more than likely as class valedictorian — and thus have postponed learning what his uneducated father had been trying so hard to teach him all along: of the terrible, the incomprehensible way one's most banal, incidental, even comical choices achieve the most disproportionate result."

In 2009, Roth published The Humbling, only 140 pages. It's the story of Simon Axler, a famous and respected stage actor in his mid-60s, who suddenly finds that his talent is gone. He sinks into depression, his wife leaves him, he considers suicide, and he checks himself into a psychiatric ward. But then he gets out and falls for the 40-year-old lesbian daughter of two acting friends, and for a while at least is distracted by the excitement of this new relationship. He particularly likes transforming her into a "feminine" woman by spending lots of money buying her stylish Manhattan outfits and haircuts. But the relationship ends badly and he is worse off even than before. The Humbling begins: "He'd lost his magic. The impulse was spent. He'd never failed in the theater, everything he had done had been strong and successful, and then the terrible thing happened: he couldn't act. Going onstage became agony. Instead of the certainty that he was going to be wonderful, he knew he was going to fail. It happened three times in a row, and by the last time nobody was interested, nobody came. He couldn't get over to the audience. His talent was dead."

Roth's most recent book, and the last in his quartet, is Nemesis (2010). Set in the summer of 1944, it tells the story of a principled, energetic 23-year-old named Bucky Cantor whose poor vision prevents him from going off to fight with all of his peers. A good athlete and physical education teacher, he applies himself to his job as the summer director of a playground in his hometown of Newark. A polio epidemic hits the town, and Cantor reacts to it with all the force and intensity he would have brought to the battlefield. He says, "This was real war too, a war of slaughter, ruin, waste and damnation, war with the ravages of war — war upon the children of Newark." But ultimately he gives in to the repeated entreaties of his girlfriend to abandon the dangerous city and join her at the nice Jewish camp in the Catskills where she is teaching. Polio erupts there as well, and everyone is tested. The story ends with a surprising twist, and Bucky has to rethink all of his seemingly heroic acts.

Philip Roth said: "I would be wonderful with a 100-year moratorium on literature talk, if you shut down all literature departments, close the book reviews, ban the critics. The readers should be alone with the books, and if anyone dared to say anything about them, they would be shot or imprisoned right on the spot. Yes, shot. A 100-year moratorium on insufferable literary talk. You should let people fight with the books on their own and rediscover what they are and what they are not. Anything other than this talk. Fairytale talk. As soon as you generalize, you are in a completely different universe than that of literature, and there's no bridge between the two."

From the archives:

It's the birthday of novelist Irving Wallace, (books by this author) born in Chicago, Illinois (1916). He was the son of Russian immigrants, and decided at a young age that he wanted to be a journalist. He sold his first article, "The Horse Laugh," to Horse and Jockey magazine when he was 15. After graduating from high school, he and some friends traveled to Honduras, hoping to be the first Americans to find the legendary "Fountain of Blood" hidden in a remote mountain jungle. He did find it and wrote about it for several newspapers, but it turned out that the fountain's water was red because of mineral deposits.

After working in Hollywood for a few years, he got an idea for a novel about the impact of a sex survey on suburban housewives in California. It became The Chapman Report (1960), a huge best-seller. The book was made into a movie starring Jane Fonda in 1962.

Wallace went on to write a string of best-selling novels, including The Man (1964), about the first African-American president of the United States, and The Fan Club (1974), about the abduction and enslavement of a movie star. He also published many books of nonfiction, including The Nympho and Other Maniacs (1971), about women in history who have defied convention. He was one of the best-selling authors of his lifetime. He died in 1990.

It's the birthday of playwright and filmmaker Neil LaBute, born in Detroit, Michigan (1963). He was the son of a truck driver and a hospital receptionist, and he became interested in morality at a young age. He went to church and Bible study, even though his parents didn't, and he chose to attend Brigham Young University even though he wasn't a Mormon. He said: "I liked the challenge of going somewhere so strict. I found it refreshing. You weren't surrounded by people smoking and swearing. It was this wave of niceness." He later converted to Mormonism.

In college, he staged a production of David Mamet's play Sexual Perversity in Chicago (1974), and he loved the strong reaction it got. He thought that the purpose of drama was to make people confront the ordinary evil that they usually didn't notice. He moved to New York and started producing plays. In 1992, during a performance of his play Filthy Talk for Troubled Times, he saw an audience member stand up and shout, "Kill the playwright!" LaBute said it was one of the best theater experiences he ever had.

In order to make his first movie, In the Company of Men (1997), he borrowed $25,000 from two friends who had received insurance money from a car accident. He shot the movie in 11 days, with only two takes per scene. He submitted a black and white video of the film to the Sundance Film Festival and it was accepted. The film eventually won the Filmmaker's Trophy and received a standing ovation.

He's gone on to write several plays that he has turned into movies, including Your Friends and Neighbors (1998) and The Shape of Things (2003).

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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