David's mother brought him to New York City from eastern Europe as a baby. Call It Sleep by Henry Roth follows young David through his first eight years, growing up in the tenements of early twentieth century New York City.
Life on the lower east side of Manhattan has been hard. Hard because the family struggles to make ends meet; hard because the quiet sensitive David is bullied by the other neighborhood boys; but, mostly hard because of David's abusive father Albert, whose temper and paranoia often prevent him from even holding down a job. Albert frequently takes out on his frustration on his young son.
David is sensitive and quiet and clings to his mother. His lack of assertiveness makes him an easy target for those who use him or bully him or blame him for their own mistakes. And there is no shortage of people in his world anxious to do this - from neighborhood kids to the local rabbi to his bratty cousins. The more the world troubles him, the more he clings to his mother for protection.
There is a constant tension between all the characters - partly the result of the stress of being a struggling immigrant in an unfamiliar country, but mostly because of Albert and his temper. And Roth does a good job bringing us into their lives and making us feel their angst.
When the point of view switches to young David, Roth often gives us an eloquent description of David's impressions of the world around him. But when angst overtakes the boy, Roth switches to a stream-of-consciousness inner dialogue, revealing young David's angst through incomplete sentences and phrases.
There is a lot of dialogue in this book and much of it is spelled phonetically to indicate the European or Bowery accents of the speaker. Add to that the occasional Yiddish word and this can be a difficult book to read.
But it is a good story that will make you feel for the characters trapped in it.