The Contest For Aaron Gold by Philip Roth, 1955
The magic trick:
Keeping the storytelling process simple; staying out of the way
I find it amazing, bordering on unbelievable, that Philip Roth was 22 years old when this story was published. Not only because the story is so good, but because of why it is of such high quality. The key is that the writer stays out of the way. The restraint Roth shows here is remarkable. He does nothing fancy. He doesn’t cram in the metaphors or balance out scenes at the beginning and end with repeated symbols. Sure, there is the underlying Holocaust commentary, as he makes plain that Werner was forced from his Austrian home by the Nazis. But even that is subtext. Mostly, Roth simply tells the story of a summer camp where the adults have forgotten to put aside their own petty problems in favor of what is best for the children. Laying back and letting the story unfold naturally is not so easy for the most seasoned of writers. For a young author anxious to prove his talent worthy of the world’s attention, restraint like this is almost unheard of. And that’s quite a trick on Roth’s part.
“I don’t mean to say you held him up, Werner. I know kids – they dawdle, play around. Just remind him to get down on time.” He dropped his voice to a confidential octave. “Lefty tells me that the kid is kind of peculiar. Having a helluva time teaching him to swim.”
“Yea. You know, if there’s one thing parents want to see visiting day it’s their kid swimming around like a goddam fish.”
Werner said that was probably true.
“But you know, Werner,” Steinberg started away, “even old Lefty can’t teach them if they’re not there.”
“Mr. Steinberg – “
“Damn near forgot,” Steinberg called back. “Every kid’s going to have something finished by visiting day, Werner. Parents want something for their money.”
Werner thought of baseballs and pancakes. “I suppose so, Mr. Steinberg.”