Nope. There have been, what, five novels since then?, all of them stunning in one way or another, particularly last year's Exit Ghost. This one is a surprise--no familiar characters, no old men, and most of it takes place at a college in Ohio. Our first-person protagonist, Marcus Messner, is a butcher's son from Newark. When he begins college in a small Newark school, his father begins to worry about him--so much so that it becomes a kind of sickness. When Marcus is out late one night studying, his father becomes fixated on the idea that he is out playing pool, and double-locks the door against him. This event precipitates Marcus's transfer to Winesburg College, a day's bus ride away.
The book is set against the backdrop of the Korean War, in which Marcus is terrified of being killed; his plan is to graduate first in his class, become an officer, and avoid combat. So far it's a rich, if simple, story--but fifty pages in, Roth does something shocking. I'm gonna spoil this small surprise, so if you care, stop reading. But in the wake of the book's pivotal event (I am delighted to tell you that it is a blow job), we get this:
What happened next I had to puzzle over for weeks afterward. And even dead, as I am and have been for I don't know how long, I try to reconstruct the mores that reigned over that campus and to recapitulate the troubled efforts to elude those mores that fostered the series of mishaps ending in my death at the age of nineteen.
There's your novel, right there. The blow job comes from Olivia Hutton, a willowy gentile with razor scars on her wrist, lots of sexual experience, and a violent aversion to talking about her father. Marcus's relationship with her lies at the center of a series of accidents and misjudgements (including clashes with the Dean, a lunatic roommate, a quickly declining father back in Newark, and a dalliance with a Jewish fraternity) which do indeed lead to death.
This death--Marcus is telling the story from a kind of athiest purgatory, and the act of remembering consumes his consciousness; it's easy to see this riffing as Roth's contemplation of the novelist's creative dream-state: "...Would death have been any less terrifying if I'd understood that it isn't an endless nothing but consisted instead of memory cogitating for eons on itself? Though perhaps this perpetual remembering is merely the anteroom to oblivion." So we get this, but mostly we get Marcus's wild descent into his doom. Olivia's disturbed, if poised, lasciviousness gives way, toward the book's conclusion, to a campus-wide panty raid; Marcus's visiting mother complains about his declining father, "I cannot sleep beside him in the bed anymore." Marcus finds his dorm room ransacked, and anointed with semen. In each case we see sexual urges deflected, reflected, and perverted, and if gives you to wonder if plain old wholesome sex is even something that exists in Roth's world.
Well, if it doesn't, that's fine by me. Marcus is so cheerful and energetic in charting his own death spiral that the book is actually kind of a delight to read; Rhian kept coming into the room and asking me what I was chortling about. I feel as though this was an easy one for Roth; it's like watching Emeril Legasse make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. In any event, Roth is still on fire, and I did something with this book I haven't done in many, many years (and haven't had the time to do): I opened it up, sat down, and read the whole thing, cover to cover, without interruption. The fact that I would want to should tell you something.