“Call it Sleep” is a great novel not for its plot or characters, but for its setting. Jewish immigrant New York in the early days of the century, before immigration restriction was introduced: a cornucopia of languages and ethnic stereotyping, home of the greatest “melting pot” the world has ever seen.
The book focuses on a presumably semi-autobiographical protagonist, a young boy growing up in a tenement in a Jewish section of the city. His parents are unhappily married, giving him a look into the stresses and strains of adult relationships well before he was ready for it.
The relationships are well-written, the characters multifaceted and believable, but where Roth really sings is in his descriptions of the city. When he writes it, you can feel the multicultural crowd milling about and re-uniting with lost loved ones on the decks of Atlantic ships, you can smell the spices and stenches of the city streets, you can feel the hot breath of ethnic prejudice on your face.