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RICHARD EDER

The Rantings of a Modern-Day Lucifer : SABBATH'S THEATER, By Philip Roth (Houghton Mifflin: $24.95; 451 pp.)

August 27, 1995|RICHARD EDER

Odd copulations are part of witch and demon folklore, where goats and other beasts join with human partners under the auspices of Satan. We hadn't realized it, but all this time Philip Roth has been setting up a modern equivalent.

Who would have thought that young Portnoy's celebrated exploit with a hunk of raw liver would turn out to be not masturbation but procreation? Yet here, full-fledged, repellent, fascinating and fearfully long-winded, is the offspring: Mickey Sabbath, a former puppeteer, an obsessive white-bearded seducer and a reverse alchemist who consistently turns the gold of human possibility into the lead of a mono-maniacal ego. Finally, after Nixon in "Our Gang" (a splashy dry run) and Zuckerman (a prince of light or of darkness and fortunately you're never sure which) Roth has got his demon down cold.

Following literary tradition and his own, he has given the devil the best lines. Very fine too, many of them. They are also just about the only lines, and there are many of them. By the time this Lucifer completes his fall, it is hard to hold on to the suggestion that at the start he was an angel. Samuel Johnson, constrained to admire "Paradise Lost," remarked nevertheless that "no one ever wished it longer than it was." Not that 450 pages is necessarily long, but it is long for one hand to be clapping.

And of course Sabbath (as in witch's sabbath --nothing in Roth is there by chance) uses his hand for something very different from clapping. In one of the early acts that win him a small celebrity, he mimes the trial and execution of a middle finger by the other fingers, which end up stuffing the offending digit into a tiny meat-grinder.

The 62-year-old Sabbath's aggressive confessional monologue is, in a sense, an expansion of the finger act: He is at once his own culprit, his own judge and his own would-be executioner. It is not an ear he seeks, though, but an audience. There is a difference. An audience is a target--in this case, an entity to be assailed, shocked, amused and abused into a participation that leaves it not purged but complicit. The clown does the pratfalls but somehow the bruises are imprinted on the backsides of the spectators. It is in the line of the lacerating New York solo comics; Sabbath could be Jackie Mason on amphetamines.

Sabbath's account begins in the present, when he is 62, and moves through several days of climactic horrors; at the same time it rampages feverishly back and forth through a past that is even worse.

Drenka has suddenly died of cancer. She had been his partner in 13 years of unbridled adultery that was Wagnerian in its Sturm, its Drang, and its claim to have reformulated the art. Arthritis has long since prevented him from performing puppet theater. A sexual scandal with a student at the Upstate college where he taught put an end to his job there. Nikki, an actress who was his first wife, disappeared years before. He is supported by his second wife, Roseanne, an alcoholic and then a recovering alcoholic, with whom he lives in a state of mutual loathing.

Indifferent to her drinking--he had his nights with Drenka--he can't abide her reform. She speaks in the jargon of recovery, using such tags as "sharing" and "comfortable with," and she enunciates the doctrine of letting it all out: "You're as sick as your secrets." "Wrong," he snarls, "you're as adventurous as your secrets, as abhorrent as your secrets, as lonely as your secrets, as alluring as your secrets, as courageous as your secrets, as vacuous as your secrets. . . ." Finally fury takes them both over: Her throat clogs, his loosens. Desperately, she tells him that shouting is irrational. "Shouting is how a Jew thinks things through," he screams.

Thus far, he is a more or less recognizable Roth character: Jewish, incandescently argumentative, an emotional sadomasochist, a lover and tormentor of Gentile women. He is sex-obsessed, God-obsessed--God as the laws of life that stand in the way of Sabbath's limitlessness--and preemptor of all arguments, including those that tell him how awful he is. He will tell you first; you won't have that satisfaction.

But Roth has swollen his normally out-sized, brilliant and intolerably self-immured protagonist into something monstrous and unhinged. Corrosiveness becomes dementia. Mourning Drenka, he regularly visits her grave at night and ejaculates on top of it, darting away only when other former lovers arrive for the same purpose. Transgressor of all dispositions, including literary--he is contemptuously obsessed by James Joyce and scornfully imitates him for several pages--he insists that the grave is not a fine and private place, and that you do, too, embrace there.

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