One has to wonder why Roth doesn't slow down. Does he have a terminal disease, like his alter-ego in Operation Shylock? Is he possessed by a unquenchable desire to succeed, like his protagonist in American Pastoral? Or, like Mickey in Sabbath's Theater, does Roth just not know when to ease up? Roth was in the middle of a serious renaissance in the 90's, one of the critical high points was the 1995 publication of Sabbath's Theater. It's not that hard to imagine the book to be some kind of response to Portnoy's Complaint, his 60's novel that can also be referred to as the one book by Philip Roth that most people have read. The old controversy over that novel's sexualized narrator wasn't reignited in 95 by the publication of Sabbath's Theater, as can be remembered, America wasn't reading that much in the 90's, thusly, we couldn't be offended. No one felt the need to tell Roth that, and Sabbath's Theater lays it on pretty thick. Mickey Sabbath, the elderly and overweight protagonist, is so enraptured by both his historical perversions and his potential for future ones that even a twenty page urination passage doesn't seem out of place. After all, by the time the reader reaches that ugly portion of the narrative, one's already plowed through just about every form of depravity that a man and woman are capable of that those of a more squeamish posture are certain to have left the story.
While it may seem slight to focus so abruptly on the perverse nature of the work, Roth leaves little room for anything else. What is left outside of that is the story of a man at war with himself, a man out of options and friends on his way to oblivion: a story that was as worn out and cliched as it could ever have been by the time Roth got around to writing it. So closely on the heels of Operation Shylock, one can't help but sneer that Theater won the National Book Award--after all, it is a much easier work to praise than the obtuse, cynical, and "Jewish" work of genius that was Shylock. Although we have no evidence to produce, imagining that Theater was a work that Roth churned out in a fit of rage, as if he were saying, "Okay, you don't want to read about Jewish people? Then here's another potboiler story about a man with a hard-on, only this time, I'll make it impossible for you to identify with him."
In all likelihood, that's an unlikely fantasy; designed to help a reader who has come to respect and expect more from a writer who, increasingly, seems to care so much for how his work is received that he no longer cares solely for the work itself. Sabbath's Theater isn't a bad book, not at all. What it is though, is a stupid book, an ugly book, and it's about the stupid and ugly things that people do everyday. Whether Roth needed to write a book about those things will, of course, always be up to him. The only thing we can do is not read it, or, at the very least, not recommend it. Sadly, that will be the case here today.