Philip Roth’s writing career extends over more than fifty years but Letting Go was his first full length novel, published in 1962. I have been reading the Penguin edition from 1984. This first novel shows that, way back then, Roth was, as he still is, a talented and versatile writer in complete control of his subject and already a master craftsman. What is particularly important in Letting Go is Roth’s ability to write from within the mind, the psyche, the soul even of the several characters. When the point of view shifts from Gabe Wallach, the principal character, the voice shifts seamlessly and the reader is perched on the shoulder of each new narrator. This is compelling writing.
Among many aspects to admire is Roth’s pitch-perfect ear for colloquial dialogue. It does not matter whether it is the wealthy, articulate, literature graduate Gabe or the 19-year-old mentally sub-normal pregnant waitress, or Gabe’s manipulative father, Roth can write pages of compelling dialogue between them as well as revealing their innermost thoughts and feelings.
Set in the 1950s, the story concerns Gabriel Wallach, a graduate student of English literature who receives a letter written by his dying mother, forwarded by his very controlling father, that sheds a new light on her married life. It is the first of many insights throughout the novel into the different perspectives of the several characters on the same events. Letting Go is very much a word picture of American society in the 1950s post-Korea and when it was originally published in 1962 it was considered by some reviewers as shocking while still accepting that the then 29-year-old author was a major young talent. The New York Times reviewer Orville Prescott wrote:
In addition to being a long and intimate study of its four unforgettable principals, “Letting Go” is a harshly satirical account of many other characters in many different walks of life. Mr. Roth is amusing and touching and shocking by turns. He writes with a fine combination of sympathy and mockery about middle-class New York Jews, Gabe’s and Paul’s relatives. He is savagely satirical about academic opportunists. He is adroit and amusing in his thumbnail sketches of American types: loathsome old men washed into a dreadful rooming house by a tide of misery; an abortionist; a Negro hipster; a pregnant girl of 19, mentally subnormal; a bellicose, suspicious, ignorant and dishonest factory worker out of a job.
The long (but not too long) novel builds to a powerful climax with Roth taking the reader every step of the way there. It’s worth saying again that Roth deserves a too-long-denied Nobel Prize and it is to that panel’s discredit it has been so long withheld.