The Master Puppeteer
Sabbath’s Theatre by Philip Roth
HMH 1995, Vintage 1996
Reviewed by Seana Graham
“It began, I think, because I was looking for a place to be buried,” says Philip Roth about Sabbath’s Theatre, winner of the 1995 National Book Award (his second). He had recently buried a close friend in a cemetery near his home, but realized that he didn’t think he himself would be “comfortable” there. The truth of this, that it matters to the living where and how they will be buried, even as they recognize the inanity of such thoughts, is worth keeping in mind while reading this darkly comic novel. Otherwise, Roth’s protagonist, the obscene puppeteer, debaucher of women and ferocious and furious consumer of life Mickey Sabbath may well wear you down. Don’t you let him. This is a ride you should take to the end. Though I warn you, you may want to pace yourself.
The story begins with an ultimatum from Drenka, Mickey’s longtime partner in adultery, who tells him (in more salty terms) that he must forsake all others. But the reason this story is even narrated is that Drenka is already dead at the time of its telling. Bereft, Sabbath then learns that another old friend from the city he abandoned years before has committed suicide. Although at first he claims no interest in witnessing the body, he is kidding no one but himself and resolutely burns all bridges until he finds himself driving back to New York, the city he left when his first wife died–or at least went permanently missing. Suicidal himself and currently penniless, he stays with old friends, but shortly abuses their hospitality in every way imaginable, and in some ways that won’t have occurred to you too.
Roth’s technique in the novel is to always choose the more shocking path, and then just when you think you’ve heard it all, to invent some further outrage. This is, in fact, the technique of Sabbath the puppeteer as well, who, with his minimalist finger puppets, lures his audience with an obscene beckoning and then, having roped them in, takes them even further—as far as they are willing to go, in fact. An example of the complicity that both Roth and Sabbath rely on in their audiences is revealed in a flashback to a phone sex conversation that Sabbath and one of his students have had, which she has taped in order (possibly) to entrap him. The comedy that comes from this is that the aggrieved women faculty members who want to bring about Sabbath’s downfall have in fact made the entire recording available to anyone who calls a certain number to listen to at length. The fact that Roth has placed the full conversation in a pages long footnote makes clear that he anticipates his readers will be no better than his fictional auditors at keeping themselves from indulging in voyeurism. The master puppeteer of my title here, then, is not Mickey Sabbath, but Philip Roth himself.
The pilgrimage to former haunts doesn’t stop in New York, but takes us back further in Mickey’s life, to the Jersey Shore where he spent what he remembers as an idyllic childhood. But his big brother and childhood idol was shot down in WWII and from that day what Mickey calls “the endlessness” of childhood came to a full stop.
For all the outrageousness of the comedy in the first part of the book, it is really the tenderness embedded in the second half that gives the novel its depth. In the presence of his hundred year old cousin Fish, Sabbath finally slows down a bit, and we get a glimpse of the person beneath his mask of buffoonery. Fish’s way of continuing with life despite all loss is the antidote to Mickey’s. In the encounter with Fish, Mickey’s own hell-bent road to suicide finally comes to an end, though, I might add, it doesn’t ‘redeem’ him in any way we’d recognize.
The problem with life, Sabbath thinks, is death–looking it squarely in the eye in a way most of us do not. There are many lines in the novel that could be emblematic of his philosophy in regard to this, but I thought this quote could stand as a token for others:
“Yes, yes, if you can still do something, you must do it – that is the golden rule of sublunar existence, whether you are a worm cut in two or a man with a prostate like a billiard ball. If you can still do something, then you must do it! Anything living can figure that out.”
Roth promised on his eightieth birthday last year never to give himself over again to the “stringent exigencies of literature,” but maybe he should take the advice of Mickey Sabbath and write just one more.