The Counterlife


Started reading Roth’s The Counterlife last night, late.  Kept reading for an hour, which for me is really unusual.

I’m struck by how quickly Roth pulls me into a story, even when I don’t necessarily care a whole lot about the character.  Nathan Zuckerman’s brother Henry is in many ways repellent.  He seems childhish, prudish, judgemental (of Nathan’s excesses), a philanderer, shallow.   But his story is presented so efficiently in the first twenty page of the book — all in the form of Nathan’s imaginary eulogy, which he never gives — that I couldn’t stop reading.

Part of it, I know, is that Zuckerman’s character (and Roth, obviously) is so intelligent and so compelling that I want to keep reading to find out what he thinks about his brother’s life and death. But most of it is just that amazing efficiency of character, tension, and plot.  Everything is laid bare immediately — his brother’s flaws, the reasons for those flaws, the price he pays.  And because I’ve read a few of the other Zuckerman novels, I have a good sense that what’s come won’t be what I expect.

I don’t expect to love the book, or to love any of the characters.  But I do expect that there will be some narrative and psychological arc that will be searing and beautiful.  And how amazing is that, for it to be my expectation?

About the author

Tom Howard

Tom Howard is the author of Fierce Pretty Things (Indiana University Press, 2019).

He received his MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Fierce Pretty Things won the 2018 Blue Light Books Fiction Prize, and his individual stories have won the Ninth Letter Literary Award in Fiction, the Indiana Review Fiction Prize, the Robert and Adele Schiff Award for Fiction, the Carve Magazine Prose & Poetry Contest, the Tobias Wolff Award in Fiction, the Innovative Short Fiction Prize, the Willow Springs Ficiton Prize, the Rash Award in Fiction, and the Robert J. DeMott Award for Short Prose.

He lives with his wife in Arlington, Virginia.

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By Tom Howard


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