j    c    r e y e s

Review of Philip Roth’s Review of A Summer’s Lynching


I couldn’t pass another moment before addressing the misconception that somehow gifts I sent Mr. Philip Roth (a documentary DVD set about Superman’s history with the Klu Klux Klan, a bold-brown print outdoor lounge chair for his patio, some plantains) at all swayed the direction of his review of my first novel A Summer’s Lynching. I’m certain his was a sincere impression. I’m certain he meant every word. And he would certainly never attest to what critic Angela Powell so disgustingly, and disconcertingly, called in her review of Mr. Roth’s review of A Summer’s Lynching “the worst kind of literary nepotism this side of Baghdad.”

That a man who dreamt such indelible realities as Zuckerman’s many (because, as philosopher entrepreneur Delano Rice once cleverly noted, “Autobiography is a repeating nightmare that must be exiled through one’s hands and feet often”) found my novel “lucid, and in discrete parts, and the kind of book I finished after reading the last page” is not surprising.

Similarly bounded as he and I are to crude, margin-note brainstorms between drafts, it’s no surprise that a reader of his experience found in A Summer’s Lynching “that which seems like an outlined collection of perspectives, which Mr. Reyes certainly revised from some original draft that first flushed out some semblance of a story, which he must have first thought up while playing pool and having a beer after a hard day’s work.”

He’s right. A man of his integrity usually is. And so I must, having first permitted a month of parrying between critics, come to his defense.

Firstly, Mr. Philip Roth is no slouch. Marvin Eleanor’s assessment that he “simply aped Mr. Reyes’s press kit taglines, addressing the author’s words in Reyes’s own rather than making the effort, for which retirement is no excuse, to actually read the book and discern what the rest of us have done and in far less time, that A Summer’s Lynching is a readable text, the most common of its kind” is insulting to both the Man himself and this emerging writer whose narrative chutzpah is little more than a highway robbery of Mr. Roth’s own. That Mr. Roth saw in the novel’s prologue “a provisional sketch—frankly, literature’s most intricately painted introductory rant since my start to The Human Stain” is, if our establishment is honest with itself, precisely that kind of insight so wanting in critical book reviews. That Mr. Roth is blamed for wholly envisioning the novel’s setting, its combustible city of traffic and tragedy, that place which mirrors every place where dynasties confront subtle apathy’s uncontrollability and an invasive newcomer’s unshakable shrug, is as much testament to our waning imagination as it is to Mr. Roth’s courage to sever those shackling bars that refuse, as of this writing, to upraise his corpus to legendary. The man is our Christ of American letters. His literary past is as human as his contemporary reviews, and he won’t be god until he passes and the impact of his meanings are revived.

For my second point, I’d like to bring to your attention Mr. Roth’s assessment of my novel’s Chapter Five and Chapter Six, which seems appropriate considering that five and six sum eleven, and there are eleven knots in A Summer’s Lynching. And also because, by way of public nuisance and urban congestion and revelation, narrative components that consume the novel whole are epitomized in microcosms Chapter Five and Chapter Six. In Mr. Roth’s own words, “I see what Mr. Reyes did in those chapters, and there’s no mistaking it’s that necessary twist in the middle of a book.” Indeed, Mr. Roth, a man of his own commanding words, saw that center and alluded to its incisiveness, to its trace of character and sound and hollering streets that all but succumbed to the weight of the dozens upon dozens of voices clamoring for meaning, for why a man found hanging by a noose from a plumbing pipe in the basement had not chosen some other room in some different building on some different night in some other place, or why, if our lives’ indentations are something we cannot escape, all the aforementioned had been chosen for him leaving the man no say and certainly no choice in how he left and whom he couldn’t take with him. As Mr. Roth continues, “What I saw unfolding in these focal chapters was a turn of events. The novel began as a collection of drowning lies. However, once a family on the fourth floor revealed some semblance of fact, primarily to themselves but also for the reader, the novel’s south side descent consumed the neighborhood in all the insurmountable guilt a misinterpretation of information usually offers. Either that or I’m imposing my own reading onto the page. Either way, the novel’s facts are fiction. And the novel’s fiction is still under review.” Indeed, a more insightful truth about lies has never been told. And it’s Mr. Roth’s review that will permanently outshine his outsized, competing analyses elsewhere in the world. Take, for example Tacoma Sun Times book critic Joanne Seymour (“A Summer’s Lynching straddled the edges of a square plane, dangling by its fingers, refusing to let go, and I, too, found myself hanging, but I didn’t appreciate not seeing the floor, and I certainly didn’t appreciate the yelling to come down”). Take, for example, The Chapel Hill Bill book critic Donnelly Donnelly (“The novel orbits a center that has little to do with the man whose death catalyzes the story. And instead of his voice, we get everyone else’s who knew little or nothing about him. And, on the other side of the mountain of stories people tell, I couldn’t help but wonder aloud, as I read this book at a silent bar on consecutive nights smelling like ash, Am I really supposed to be this still?”). Both critics stared into the grey window and saw themselves, and in doing so, they weren’t blinded. Instead, they simply forgot the most implicating truth all fiction imposes, that if it isn’t the reader at the center of it then there isn’t anything worth reading.

Lastly, I would like to consider Mr. Roth’s concluding assessment of the end of A Summer’s Lynching, which was not only an uplifting note, but also one meriting the same awe of our first English word, written, as it probably was, shortly after the fall of Rome, by a scribe alone in the hull of a Scandinavian ship bound west somewhere in the North Sea, attempting to handwrite a Latin prayer but which, because seas have always rocked and splashed rolls against bow and stern, and because the scribe’s hand probably jerked left to right and off the page, inadvertently became another language entirely. “That last bit of thirteen pages plus jumped off the page because it initially seemed to resemble little before it by way of form. But when I reread the prologue, and a chapter or two in between, I concluded that, as a final chapter, it was able to finish the book.” What more could an author ask for. It’s clear from Mr. Roth’s denouement he would never have agreed with Chicago Fray editor Kiera Proloppe’s decision to “shut the book and leave it alone on the buffet table, lingering with all those coupons one collects but rarely uses,” or The Maine Protocol “Culture & Tradition” editor Garvey Tressle’s assertion that “the book ended where it turned, somewhere in the middle where the narrator sailed into style.” Mr. Roth saw in the historical sketch of the city’s police precinct, in the police commissioner’s brief and lewd biography, and in his culminating conversations with well-meaning but unalterably subordinate Detective Alexandria Gyre more than a mere exchange. Mr. Philip Roth saw what The Philip Roth Society’s convention reiterates during its commencement speeches annually, that “the fundamental coupling of dialogue and informal historical flashbacks in novels provides the necessary plot points for stories to become contiguous, infinite lines.” Indeed, the Master’s punctuating remarks, concluding his review like a midsentence cutoff and walkout at dinner, brushed the last stroke upon a painting of a painting whose colors covered the original’s colors in exactly the same colors.

The frame was masterful, and its chapter-by-chapter trace delineated a reader’s own coming path. What emerged was that look upon a mural that nods and then walks away, because amid a literary landscape where bloated praises are heaped in shovels’ full upon everything from poetry collections to our newest editions of the dictionary, an opinion reflecting a calculated mediocrity upon one’s book is the sincerest form of flattery.



J C REYES is originally from Guayaquil, Ecuador. His stories, poems and essays have appeared in Arcadia, Black Warrior Review, Hawaii Review and The Busy Signal. He holds a Mathematics degree from New York University, and he currently teaches creative writing, literature, and composition at The University of Alabama. His first novel, A Summer’s Lynching, has been regarded as the best book in recent memory by everyone who's read it most recently.

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