Author: Philip Roth.
Publication Date: September 16, 2008.
Summary: In 1951, the second year of the Korean War, a studious, law-abiding, and intense youngster from Newark, New Jersey, Marcus Messner, begins his sophomore year on the pastoral, conservative campus of Ohio's Winesburg College. And why is he there and not at a local college in Newark where he originally enrolled? Because his father, the sturdy, hardworking neighborhood kosher butcher, seems to have gone mad – mad with fear and apprehension of the dangers of adult life, the dangers of the world, the dangers he sees in every corner for his beloved boy, and Marcus finds he just cannot put up with it. Far from Newark, he meets a beautiful but disturbed girl with a dark past, and comes to heads with the Dean over required chapel time, being an ardent atheist. With every seemingly inconsequential step, Marcus seals his ultimate fate as he struggles to find his way amid the customs and constrictions of another American world.
My rating: 7/10.
My review: This book is the definition of "meh" for me. It was well-written and well-told, technically fairly solid, but not only did I not have any kind of emotional response to it whatsoever (which is far worse to me than actively disliking or straight out hating a book), I thought the message the book kind of tried to get across was rather weak, rather dull, and rather ham-fisted. As a big history lover, I have come to learn to view things that have happened in the past in its historical context. So using the fact that Marcus is unable to believe or reconcile himself to Olivia because she gives him a blow-job on their first date to highlight the main conflict of the story was frankly weak. To be honest, at the risk of sounding controversial, I didn't blame Marcus for his reaction, and I wouldn't blame a man for it now, forget 60 years ago. The author seems to want the reader to understand how constraining and illogical the social constructs of that time truly were, but is it actually that ridiculous for a young man to feel uncomfortable with a woman whom he barely knows going down on him in the car on their very first date? Is it that ridiculous for a man to react thus in the 1950s in a world built around specific, religiously influenced, conservative values? Taking into consideration that in the end she did turn out to be both promiscuous and disturbed begs the question of what the point of her character was in the first place, and that question begged on me throughout the whole novel. I did enjoy Marcus's inner-struggle. I think Roth captured the intense, idealistic, black and white naïveté of a young, sheltered, and self-righteous young man perfectly. The ending was what really irked and baffled me. One may perhaps argue it wasn't the message at all but, in context, it would be tough to take away a different moral. And the moral is - every decision, even the most inconsequential one, has a disproportionate and sometimes tragic effect on one's life. Whilst this seems like a simple constant and a truism, in conjunction to what happens to Marcus the book doesn't only seem to justify Marcus's father's insane paranoia, it also seems to carry a subliminal message that taking risks, stepping out of the norm, and standing up for yourself leads to a brutal, untimely death, and if Marcus had only played by the rules and kept his mouth shut, everything would have been fine and he would have likely been very successful. Even Marcus's own realizations of the ridiculousness and emptiness of the social constructs within which he and his world exist don't outweigh that message, albeit I get the sense they were intended to. And while I realize that this novel is supposedly heavily autobiographical, since Roth had actually attended college in the 1950's, somehow it falls under the category of historical fiction written in retrospect that doesn't quite hit its mark.
♥ It was my job not just to pluck the chickens but to eviscerate them. You slit the ass open a little bit and you stick your hand up and you grab the viscera and you pull them out. I hated that part. Nauseating and disgusting, but it had to be done. That's what I learned from my father and what I loved learning from him: that you do what you have to do.
♥ ...I believed he had gone crazy.
And he had: crazy with worry that his cherished only child was as unprepared for the hazards of life as anyone else entering manhood, crazy with the frightening discovery that a little boy grows up, grows tall, overshadows his parents, and that you can't keep him then, that you have to relinquish him to the world.
♥ At the outset of my mature life, before everything suddenly became to difficult, I had a great talent for being satisfied. I'd had it all through childhood, and in my freshman year at Robert Treat it was in my repertoire still. I was thrilled to be there. I'd quickly come to idolize my professors and to make friends, most of them from working families like my own and with little, if any, more education than my own. Some were Jewish and from my high school, but most were not, and it at first excited me to have lunch with them because they were Irish or Italian and to me a new category, not only of Newmarker but of human being. And I was excited to be taking college courses, through they were rudimentary, something was beginning to happen to my brain akin to what had happened when I first laid eyes on the alphabet.
♥ More than a few times during the first weeks, I thought I heard myself being summoned to one of the rowdier tables with the words "Hey, Jew! Over here!" But, preferring to believed the words spoken had been simply, "Hey, you! Over here!" I persisted with my duties, determined to abide by the butcher-shop lesson learned from my father: slit the ass open and stick your hand up and grab the viscera and pull them out; nauseating and disgusting, but it had to be done.
♥ My father wore an apron that tied around the neck and around the back and it was always bloody, a fresh apron always smeared with blood within an hour after the store opened. My mother too was covered in blood. One day while slicing a piece of liver—which can slide or wiggle under your hand if you don't hold it down firmly enough—she cut her palm and had to be rushed to the hospital for twelve painful stitches. And, careful and attentive as I tried to be, I had nicked myself dozens of times and had to be bandaged up, and then my father would upbraid me for letting my mind wander while I was working with the knife. I grew up with blood—with blood and grease and knife sharpeners and slicing machines and amputated fingers or missing parts of fingers on the hands of my three uncles as well as my father—and I never got used to it and I never liked it. My father's father, dead before I was born, had been a kosher butcher (he was the Marcus I was named for, and he, because of his hazardous occupation, was missing half of one thumb), as were my father's three brothers, Uncle Muzzy, Uncle Shecky, and Uncle Artie, each of whom had a shop like ours in a different part of Newark. Blood on the slotted, raised wooden flooring back of the refrigerated porcelain-and-glass showcases, on the weighing scales, on the sharpeners, fringing the edge of the roll of wax paper, on the nozzle of the hose we used to wash down the refrigerator floor—the smell of blood the first thing that would hit me whenever I visited my uncles and aunts in their stores. That smell of carcass after it's slaughtered and before it's been cooked would hit me every time. Then Abe, Muzzy's son and heir apparent, was killed at Anzio, and Dave, Shecky's son and heir apparent, was killed in the Battle of the Bulge, and the Messners who lived on were steeped in their blood.
All I knew about becoming a lawyer was that it was as far as you could get from spending your working life in a stinking apron covered with blood—blood, grease, bits of entrails, everything was on your apron from constantly wiring your hands on it. I had gladly accepted working for my father when it was expected of me, and I had obediently learned everything about butchering that he could teach me. But he never could teach me to like the blood or even to be indifferent to it.
♥ Mainly there was no more than fumbling and groping through layers of clothing, but among the male students the passion for satisfaction even that meager was boundless. Since evolution abhors unclimactic petting, the prevailing sexual code could be physically excruciating. Prolonged excitation that failed to result in orgasmic discharge could set strapping young men to hobbling about like cripples until the searing, stabbing, cramping pain of the widespread testicular torture known as blue balls would slowly diminish and pass away. On a weekend night at Winesburg, blue balls constituted the norm, striking down dozens between, say, ten and midnight, while ejaculation, that most pleasant and natural of remedies, was the ever-elusive, unprecedented event in the erotic career of a student libidinally at his lifetime's peak of performance.
♥ It's not memory that's obliviated here—it's time. There is no letup—for the afterlife is without sleep as well. Unless it's all sleep, and the dream of a past forever gone is with the deceased one forever. But dream or no dream, here there is nothing to think about but the bygone life. Does that make "here" hell? Or heaven? Better than oblivion or worse? You would imagine that at least in death uncertainty would vanish. But inasmuch as I have no idea where I am, what I am, or how long I am to remain in this state, uncertainty appears to be enduring. This is surely not the spacious heaven of the religious imagination, where all of us good people are together again, happy as can be because the sword of death is no longer hanging over our heads. For the record, I have a strong suspicion that you can die here too. You can't go forward here, that's for sure. There are no doors. There are no days. The direction (for now?) is only back. And the judgement is endless, though not because some deity judges you, but because your actions are naggingly being judged for all time by yourself.
♥ What girl found a boy "desirable" at Winesburg College? I for one had never heard of such feelings existing among the girls of Winesburg or Newark or anywhere else. As far as I knew, girls didn't get fired up with desire like that; they got fired up by limits, by prohibitions, by outright taboos, all of which helped to serve what was, after all, the overriding ambition of most of the coeds who were my contemporaries at Winesburg: to reestablish with a reliable young wage earner the very sort of family life from which they had temporarily been separated by attending college, and to do do as rapidly as possible.
♥ No matter how often I told myself I was better off without her and that she drank for the same reason she'd given me the blowjob, I couldn't stop thinking about her. I was afraid of her. I was as bad as my father. I was my father. I hadn't left him back in New Jersey, hemmed in by his apprehension and unhinged by fearful premonitions; I had become him in Ohio.
♥ I put my mouth to the page and kissed the "O." Kissed it and kissed it. Then, impulsively, with the tip of my tongue I began to lick the ink of the signature, patiently as a cat at his milk bowl I licked away until there was no longer the "O," the "l," the "i," the "v," the second "i," the "a"—licked until the upswept tail was completely gone. I had drunk her writing. I had eaten her name. I had all I could do not to eat the whole thing.
♥ I had fallen in love with an ex-teenage drunk and inmate of a psychiatric sanitarium who'd failed at suicide with a razor blade, a daughter of divorced parents, and a Gentile to boot. I had fallen in love with—or I had fallen in love with the folly of falling in love with—the very girl my father must have been imagining me in bed with on that first night he'd locked me out of the house.
♥ I hadn't the stomach to do battle with the dean of men any more than I had the stomach to do battle with my father or with my roommates. Yet battle I did, despite myself.
♥ The clothes I'd bought to leave home. The clothes I'd bought to start a new life in. The clothes I'd bought to be a new man in and to end my being the butcher's son.
Well, those were the very clothes on which I had vomited in Caudwell's office. Those were the clothes that I wore when I sat in chapel trying how not to learn to lead a good life in accordance with biblical teachings and singing to myself instead the Chinese national anthem. Those were the clothes I'd been wearing when my roommate Elwyn had thrown the punch that had nearly broken my jaw. Those were the clothes I was wearing when Olivia went down on me in Elwyn's LaSalle. Yes, there's the picture of the boy and girl that should adorn the cover of the Winesburg catalogue: me in those clothes being blown by Olivia and having no idea what to make of it.
♥ "But you are. You're so under control."
"You really think so, do you? I, who have eight thousand moods a minute, whose every emotion is a tornado, who can be thrown by a word, by a syllable, am 'under control'? God, you are blind."
♥ "How terrific," she said, and captivated me now with a different laugh entirely, a laugh that was laden with the love of life for all its unexpected charms. At that moment you would have thought the whole of Olivia lay in her laughter, when in fact it lay in her scar.
♥ "I always felt, when I was with Mrs. Sklon, that I was at the heart of things. I felt that with Big Mendelson. I mean what I'm saying, Olivia. I felt that with people in the butcher shop. I got enjoyment out of that butcher shop." But only before, I thought, before his thoughts made my father defenseless.
♥ She ended there, in tears again, the mother who never cried, never faltered, a well-spoken American-born girl who picked up Yiddish from him so as to speak it to the elderly customers, a South Side High graduate who'd taken the commercial course there and could have easily worked as a bookkeeper at a desk in an office but who learned to butcher and prepare meat from him in order to work beside him in the store instead, whose bedrock dependability, wise sensible words and coherent thoughts, had filled me with confidence throughout a childhood that was unembattled.
♥ Now she was no longer crying. Now suddenly she was herself, ready and able to do battle, and I was the one at the edge of tears, knowing that none of this would be happening had I remained at home.
It takes muscle to be a butcher, and my mother had muscles, and I felt them when she took me in her arms while I cried.
♥ My point is this: that is what Olivia had tried to do, to kill herself according to kosher specifications by emptying her body of blood. Had she been successful, had she expertly completed the job with a single perfect slice of the blade, she would have rendered herself kosher in accordance with rabbinical law. Olivia's telltale scar came from attempting to perform her own ritual slaughter.
♥ "I'm here, it needs it, I'll do it," she said.
"It doesn't need it. They did it this morning first thing."
But she needed it more than the bathroom needed it. Work—certain people yearn for work, any work, harsh or unsavory as it may be, to drain the harshness from their lives and drive from their minds the killing thoughts. By the time she came out, she was my mother again, scrubbing and scouring having restored the womanly warmth she'd always had at her disposal to give me.
♥ "And the teachers?"
"They're all right. They're no geniuses, but they're good enough. They're not what's uppermost anyway. I've got the books to study, I've got the library to use—I've got everything a brain requires for an education.
♥ And when I looked up, midway through that sentence, I saw that my mother had fallen half asleep in her chair. There was a smile on her face. Her son was reading aloud to her what he was studying in college. It was worth the train ride and the bus ride and maybe even the sight of Miss Hutton's scar. For the first time in months, she was happy.
♥ That Monday morning my mother looked herself again, unbroken and unbreakable.
♥ "But do you have the kind of strength that this requires? Because you also have a conscience. A conscience that I'm proud that you have, but a conscience that can be your enemy. You have a conscience and you have compassion and you have sweetness in you too—so tell me, do you know how to do such things as may be required of you with this girl? Because other people's weakness can destroy you just as much as their strength can. Weak people are not harmless. Their weakness can be their strength. A person so unstable is a menace to you, Markie, and a trap."
♥ "The world is full of young women who have not slit any wrists—who have slit nothing. They exist by the millions. Find one of them. She can be a Gentile, she can be anything. This is 1951. You don't live in the old world of my parents and their parents and their parents before them. Why should you? That old world is far, far away and everything in it long gone. All that is left is the kosher meat. That's enough. That suffices. It has to. Probably it should. All the rest can go. The three of us never lived like people in a ghetto, and we're not starting now. We are Americans. Date anyone you want, marry anyone you want, do whatever you want with whoever you choose—as long as she's never put a razor to herself in order to end her life. A girl so wounded as to do such a thing is not for you. To want to wipe out everything before your life has even begun—absolutely not! You have no business with such a person, you don't need such a person, no matter what kind of goddess she looks like and how many beautiful flowers she brings you. She is a beautiful young woman, there is no doubt about that. Obviously she is well brought up. Though maybe there is more to her upbringing than meets the eye. You never know about those things. You never know the truth of what goes on in people's houses. When the child goes wrong, look first to the family. Regardless, my heart goes out to her. I have nothing against her. I wish the girl luck. I pray, for her sake, that her life does not come to nothing. But you are my only son and my only child, and my responsibility is not to her but to you. You must sever the connection completely. You must look elsewhere for a girlfriend."
♥ Here she took me in those arms of hers, arms as strong as mine, if not stronger, and she said, “You are an emotional boy. Emotional like your father and all of his brothers. You are a Messner like all the Messners. Once your father was the sensible one, the reasonable one, the only one with a head on his shoulders. Now, for whatever reason, he’s as crazy as the rest. The Messners aren’t just a family of butchers. They’re a family of shouters and a family of screamers and a family of putting their foot down and banging their heads against the wall, and now, out of the blue, your father is as bad as the rest of them. Don’t you be. You be greater than your feelings. I don’t demand this of you—life does. Otherwise you’ll be washed away by feelings. You’ll be washed out to sea and never seen again. Feelings can be life’s biggest problem. Feelings can play the most terrible tricks. They played them on me when I came to you and said I was going to divorce your father. Now I have dealt with those feelings. Promise me you will deal the same with yours.”
♥ I'd myself been drawn into the vapidity not merely of the Winesburg College mores but of the rectitude tyrannizing my life, the constricting rectitude that, I was all too ready to conclude, was what had driven Olivia crazy. Don't look to the family for the cause, Ma—look to what the conventional world deems impermissible! Look to me, so pathetically conventional upon his arrival here that he could not trust a girl because she blew him!
♥ Yes, the good old defiant American "Fuck you," and that was it for the butcher's son, dead three months short of his twentieth birthday—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, eleven 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.