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Sunday, September 17, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Sabbath's Theater

----------------------------------------------------------------- "Sabbath's Theater" by Philip Roth Houghton Mifflin, $24.95 -----------------------------------------------------------------

The question that has plagued Philip Roth all his career - "Why so much shmutz?" - will probably be asked again regarding "Sabbath's Theater." But it is the wrong question. Better to ask, "Why is this shmutz so boring?"

Mickey Sabbath is an arthritic 64-year-old ex-puppeteer, a gorilla of a man who lives for sex and finds himself without a purpose when his mistress suddenly dies on him. His search to reclaim purpose - or the quiet of self-imposed death - is, at times, comic, poignant and absurd, yet the vast introspection that accompanies Mickey's quest is too dull to be believed.

So many memories swirling about his subconscious. So much internal debate over petty motives. Did this woman betray me? Should I have her anyway? Such ruminations bog down an otherwise interesting journey: The reader must slog through pages of dense, pointless prose before the sure ground of the story takes up again.

Sabbath's malice will shock many readers. He visits his dead mistress's husband and tweaks the man's heart with questions intended to cause pain. An old friend takes him in, and Sabbath plots to seduce not only his friend's wife but his college-age daughter as well. Her underwear is subsequently found in Sabbath's pants pocket. How could you do such a thing? he is asked; "How could I not is the question," he replies.

This is brilliant stuff, and Mickey Sabbath, in action, is an audacious character; only in introspective reflection does he become a bore. Unfortunately, Philip Roth gives us far too much of Mickey reflecting.

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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