Henry Roth’s Call it Sleep—a masterpiece of Jewish immigrant life—was published to considerable acclaim in 1932 but soon vanished from literary consciousness. It languished until 1960, when Alfred Kazin and Leslie Fiedler named it “the most neglected book of the past twenty-five years.”
Make it the second-most-neglected book: One Foot in America, Yuri Suhl’s recently reissued immigrant novel, covers much of the same territory as Roth’s masterpiece, but whereas Call It Sleep is dark and brooding, Suhl’s book is a fast-paced, entertaining picaresque.
Published by Macmillan in 1950, the book garnered enthusiastic reviews but has been out of print for over 60 years. It tells the story of Sol (Shloime) Kenner, a good-natured and strong-willed immigrant who relishes his passage from “greenhorn” to fully fledged American in the mid-1920s. The new edition was published in paperback by Now and Then Books earlier this year.
The novel tells Suhl’s largely autobiographical story. He was born in Galician Poland and came to America in 1923. Like his narrator, he settled in Brooklyn and worked at menial jobs while attending night school, eventually graduating from college and making a living by teaching the children of Yiddish-speaking immigrants. Later, he edited the left-leaning magazine Jewish Currents. His interests were broad: He published poetry, children’s books, several works of nonfiction, and two novels. And unlike many of his contemporaries, he gravitated not toward the psychological complexities of the immigrant’s experience but toward its more lively, Dickensian aspects.
In One Foot in America, we meet characters like Mr. Resnik, the tight-fisted butcher for whom Sol works as butcher boy; Mrs. Kaplan, the sagacious candy-store owner and mother of Sol’s first love, gum-cracking Shirley; and Max, his leftist, tough-talking pal. Suhl’s European-born characters speak Yinglish: Sol’s stepmother refers to a neighbor as “a nextdoorkeh of mine.” And they are presented in vignettes that convey a bittersweet humor. Max asks Sol, while explaining the unfairness of his working conditions in the butcher shop: “Did you ever hear of a man named Karl Marx?” No, replies Sol, before adding: “Who is he? Also a butcher?”
It’s a humorous moment, but also one that conveys Sol’s particular charm. He has much to learn, but he won’t attend Marxist lectures or devote himself to religion, so determined is he to define himself on his own terms. His attractiveness as a character stems from his pluck and ambition. Even butcher-boy drudgery is performed with passion: “I scrubbed the meat blocks with gusto, because the workout was good for my shoulder muscles. I sawed the bones with fervor, because the exertion hardened my arm muscles .… I walked into the icebox with enthusiasm, because the freezing temperature hardened me against catching colds.” Sol is a newcomer, but his spirit is unmistakably American.
While often charming and whimsical, One Foot in America deals with the most perplexing aspect of the Jewish American experience—the tension between the Old World and the new. Several poignant scenes center on Sol and his ineffectual father, the Talmudic scholar Chaim Kenner. In Europe, Chaim’s erudition and spirituality were praiseworthy; in America, where immigrants are rapidly moving from believing in monotheism to believing in money, otherworldliness is inconvenient baggage.
“Business! Everything in America is business!” Chaim cries out in a typical rant. “You hustle away your whole life and all you have to show for it is a bankbook.” For the aged scholar, the New World is suffocating—“a tiny island in a small, dimly lighted kitchen on Walton Street, Brooklyn, surrounded by a big, tumultuous ocean called America.” For his son, it is a new continent of promise and adventure.
With a sensitivity that presages the stories of Bernard Malamud, the forgiving and often tender relationship between Sol—who admits that, for all his willingness to assimilate, he, too, is “a part-time dweller” in the new world—and his feckless father generates the humanity of One Foot in America. Sol is not resentful when he has to quit school and work to support himself and his father, and he understands that his father’s obsessive poring over the Talmud gives him “a sense of spiritual fortitude” against an indifferent, cold world.
Not that the world Chaim and Sol had left behind was much better. The book’s most dramatic scenes are flashbacks to anti-Semitic incidents in Poland. For Sol, life in Europe was nightmarish: “On the houses and streets lay the drabness of poverty, and in the eyes of the people smoldered the fierceness of hunger. They were all chasing a phantom—a loaf of bread.” America is energizing, liberating, but, as the book’s title suggests, not yet truly home.
Among the neurotics and depressives of 20th-century fiction, Sol Kenner’s happiness sets him apart. He is an everyman, but not a fool. Even when working hard and grasping at happiness, he always keeps one watchful eye out for calamity. He is, in short, the sort of role model that never gets old, and well-deserving of being rediscovered.
Kenneth Sherman’s essay collection, What the Furies Bring, won the 2010 Canadian Jewish Book Award.
Kenneth Sherman is a poet and essayist. His most recent book is the memoir Wait Time.