Jack’s Naughty Bits: Philip Roth, Sabbath’s Theater, Part Two

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Jack's Naughty Bits
I don’t recall ever having been caught masturbating, but I’m not sure that means I never have been. I remember in high school stopping one night while biking home from a party so I could jerk off behind some shrubs on the University of Illinois campus, only to wake up the next morning fully dressed but partially revealed behind self-same bushes. In broad daylight with my fly open, in other words — but theoretically, not caught. Another time I woke up in my grandmother’s living room, apparently having sleepwalked from the bedroom wearing nothing but a pair of shoes (laces tied). Again, morning came and I was showing, but don’t think I got busted.


Being caught wanking would seem likely to create either the kind of memory to be burned irremovably into one’s consciousness by the arcwelder of shame, or alternately snowed under by thickest repression. Who knows? It’s probably a function of when you get busted; by one’s teen years, I would think you’d be unlikely to forget. But before? It’s hard to say.


It’s another matter entirely, however, being caught masturbating in your sixties. By your best friend. In his daughter’s bedroom. In the tub. Looking at a photo of her — or so Philip Roth would have us believe.


For yes, while most of you will remember the masturbatory hijinks of teenaged Portnoy, it’s easy to forget that the much older Roth revisited similar territory with a much older protagonist in his 1995 novel Sabbath’s Theater. Mickey Sabbath, sixty-some-year-old puppeteer and pervert, has lost his long-time mistress, Drenka, and goes into a life tailspin, finally ending up on his friend Norman’s doorway to ask for help. Norman puts Sabbath up in his daughter Deborah’s bedroom, and Sabbath does what any truly depraved inveterate perv would do: ransack the room looking for revealing pictures of the daughter. Taking the best he can find, he then retires to her bathroom for a wank in the tub, and Norman walks in. What I like about this scene is the near silence of both older men in the face of the obvious; a grotesque breach has taken place, and yet. Both are old enough to know the simple truth: this is life.


From Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth

While Sabbath ran a bath in the girlishly pink-and-white bathroom just off Deborah’s room, he interested himself in the contents, all jumbled together, of the two drawers beneath the sink — the lotions, the ointments, the pills, the powders, the Body Shop jars, the contact lens cleaner, the tampons, the nail polish, the polish remover. Working through the clutter to the bottom of each drawer, he found not a single photograph — let alone a stash of the kind Drenka had unearthed from among Silvija’s things during the next-to-last summer of her life. The one item at all beguiling, aside from the tampons, was a tube of vaginal lubricating cream twisted back on itself and nearly empty. He removed the cap to squeeze a speck of the amber grease into the palm of his hand and rubbed it between his thumb and his middle finger, remembering things as he smeared the stuff over his fingertips, all sorts of things about Drenka. He screwed the cap back on and set the tube out for experimentation later . . .


Before getting into the bath, he trundled in the nude back to her bedroom and took from the desk the largest picture of her he could find, a photograph in which Deborah was nestled up against the muscular shoulder of a burly redhead about her age. He was beside her in virtually every photograph. The deadly boyfriend.


All Sabbath did for the moment was lie in the wonderful warm bath in the pink-and-white-tiled bathroom and scrutinize the picture, as though in his gaze lay the power to transport Deborah home to her tub. Reaching out with one arm, Sabbath was able to raise the lid to expose the seat of Deborah’s pink toilet. He rubbed his hand round and round the satiny seat and was just beginning to harden when there was a light rap on the bathroom door. “You all right in there?” Norman asked and pushed the door open a ways to be sure Sabbath wasn’t drowning himself.


“Fine,” said Sabbath. It had taken no time to retract his hand from the toilet seat, but the photograph was in the other hand and the twisted tube of vaginal cream was up on the counter. He held out the picture so that Norman could see which one it was. “Deborah,” Sabbath said.


“Yes. That is Deborah.”


“Sweet,” said Sabbath.


“Why do you have the photograph in the bathtub?”


“To look at it.” . . .


“It would be a shame,” Norman finally said, “If it got wet.”