A debauched puppeteer, now settling into a lonely old age, grapples with his life's many failures, both professional and personal. When we first meet Mickey Sabbath, he has lost everything. And he has no one to blame but himself. A life of compulsive lechery and caustically cynical behavior bordering on the sociopathic has finally caught up to him. But even that is not enough to cause him anything remotely close to remorse. He relates to us the story of how he got here. Throughout, he pretends not to care that each loss has chipped away at his identity, but his continued attempts to convince us (and himself) only reinforce the deep magnitude of his life's failures.
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All of this began when his longtime mistress, Drenka Balich, dies at the relatively young age of 52. Until her death, he was more than capable of coping with a hedonistically selfish and meaningless slide into oblivion. Sabbath, in his own peculiar way, cared deeply for Drenka; she was the only woman who never bored him. He spent years molding her into the "perfect" mistress: depraved, willing, and, despite her protests that they should be faithful to each other, she never let his other sexual conquests rupture their relationship.
His wife, Roseanna, knows about Drenka, as well as the other women, and has long resigned herself to alcoholism as a coping mechanism. But when Sabbath begins some ill-advised affairs with his students at the small local college where he teaches, he is fired and the scandal is finally too much for Roseanna, who leaves for an extended stay at rehab to get her own life in order. With no job, wife, or mistress, Sabbath flees to New York to try to wrestle with his past and figure out where it all went wrong.
Here we learn that Sabbath had a first wife, named Nikki, who abandoned him thirty years before. He half-hopes to dig up some clue to her whereabouts in New York, but he finds no relief in New York. His friends hardly recognize him, and he's haunted by a ghostly presence of Nikki, who manifests all his own doubts about himself and even goes so far as to advise him to kill himself.
Sabbath flees again, this time to his old family home in New Jersey. His mother and brother Marty, a war hero, are long dead, but he finds a box of Marty's old things and finds comfort in these concrete effects that at least someone in his family lived a worthy life. With this meager revelation, Sabbath decides to return home and see if Roseanna will take him back. But when he arrives, he finds she has taken up with a lover of her own, and he is summarily kicked out once again.
With nothing left, he visits Drenka's grave. In a bizarre act of homage, he urinates on her grave, but is caught by Drenka's son, who thinks he is desecrating his mother's gravesite. Sabbath realizes that he is too cowardly to kill himself, but he now entertains a perverse hope that maybe Drenka's son will do it for him. But her son merely takes him and drives him deep into the forest, and abandons him there. The novel ends with Sabbath alone, for good now, with nowhere to turn for relief and only death to wait for. He finds little consolation in the knowledge that this is merely what he deserves.
Best part of story, including ending:
I was fascinated with elements of the novel, and with Roth's capable execution of those elements. But overall, it's frustrating to read essentially the same dirty old man story from Roth, book after book.
Best scene in story:
The only scene where I felt any sympathy for Sabbath was the last, as Drenka's son abandons him in the woods, leaving him all alone both physically and metaphorically -- a fate worse than death.
Opinion about the main character:
Couldn't stand Sabbath. But for the purposes of the novel, I suppose he had to be a terrible human being.
Roth's writing style is excellent, as is his characterization. In this book Mickey Sabbath, a retired (forced by arthritis) puppeteer, remembers his youth as a sailor and the whores in each port of call, while living it up in his old age with another man's wife. In between all the (very graphic) sex, he loses someone he loves and constantly remembers his brother that died in the war. This book is full of very cynical rants and not for the faint of heart.
The review of this Book prepared by Shane Tiernan