The third volume in the late Roth's ongoing autobiographical cycle, Mercy of a Rude Stream, is very much of a piece with its predecessors—A Star Shines Over Mt. Morris Park (1994) and A Diving Rock on the Hudson (1995). It continues the story of Roth's alter ego, Ira Stigman, now seen wrestling with his artistic and sexual demons as he straggles toward manhood in 1920s Manhattan and also, some 60 years later, as the elderly Ira labors to make sense of missed opportunities and flawed life choices, carrying on an extended, fragmented "conversation" with his computer ("Ecclesias"). This latest novel fictionalizes Roth's longtime affair with NYU teacher and poet Eda Lou Walton (here: Edith Welles), and it's drenched in the kind of self-conscious literary talk that most writers indulge in, then dispense with, in their early work (though, to be fair, Roth does communicate effectively the beady excitement felt by young intellectuals sharing a contraband copy of Joyce's Ulysses, as well as the hopeful Ira's discovery, through reading Joyce, "that it was possible to commute the dross of the mundane and the sordid into literary treasure"). There are too many lengthy disquisitions on favored writers and writing, and—conversely—a plodding recounting of Ira's peregrinations from one unfulfilling day job to another. Still, Roth writes ferocious, flinty dialogue (the scenes between Ira and his younger sister, and former lover, Minnie are charged with an unforgettable admixture of erotic heat and guilty hatred) and pulls off some remarkable technical effects in balancing the young Ira's dreams of literary accomplishment against his aged self's resigned understanding that "performance with words was the only option open to him, the only tramway out of himself." It's odd, and sad, to realize that Roth, who died last October, may eventually be better remembered for this deeply flawed final work than for his one incontestable masterpiece: Call It Sleep (1934), the book of his youth.
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