A Diving Rock on the Hudson by Henry Roth Weidenfeld & Nicolson $272 THIS is the second instalment of what Henry Roth intended to be a six-volume autobiographical work: a project of huge proportions which will now be left to others to complete after his death this week, aged 89. One obituary reported he had already written thousands of pages towards this series. Roth's first novel, Call It Sleep, appeared in 1934, and has become a classic of immigrant life in America. His next work, Mercy of a Rude Stream, the first of his autobiographical volumes, did not see print for 60 years. A Diving Rock takes up Ira Stigman's life story as he enters his high school years in the early 1920s. The book closes as Ira completes his freshman year at City College of New York, having discovered his true vocation will be writing. But these are anything but the conventional adolescent years of an American teenager. The son of an untalented, unambitious immigrant Jew, Ira grows up torn between his disdain for his family and the rejection he feels at the hands of anyone who has a claim to be American, non-Jewish, middle class, or talented. Rude Stream seemed to lack thematic material. It devoted itself so thoroughly to the day-to-day experience of growing up Jewish in Harlem that readers were swept along by the chronology, the flood of details. A Diving Rock is thematic with a vengeance: a theme that may be stated in one word: alienation. Ira encounters alienation at school when he is expelled for stealing a rich boy's expensive fountain pen. Later, at DeWitt Clinton High School, he meets two boys, both middle class, whom he befriends. Billy, an all-American boy, is the son of an engineer, a respectable boy with little imagination and no social pretensions. But Ira is so unlike Billy that, attractive as Billy's life may seem, Ira cannot cleave to him. Larry, a secular Jew with money, manners, social position and ambition looms as a kind of ideal for Ira, the ideal of the man he can never become. Once they start college, Larry improbably begins an affair with his freshman English teacher; he wants to trash his family's moneyed security (and his own plans to be a dentist), marry Miss Welles, and become a writer. But his conversation, however literary, however refined, is no match for Ira's own wealth of words and stories, and, at the very end of the novel, Ira recognises something of his own seed of genius in Larry's literary posing. In short, Ira finds himself alienated from the two friends he has. The real crux of Ira's alienation is his sexual history, his affairs with two girls. These affairs obsess him so thoroughly that his only refuge is self-loathing. The reason? After being introduced to sex by a black prostitute, he seduces his 14-year-old sister, and though both siblings scorn each other, they do not scorn their Sunday morning trysts. Indeed, Ira turns down a four-year scholarship to Cornell so that he can continue to live at home. By the novel's end, the affair has lasted some three years and shows no sign of ending despite Ira's self-disgust. Indeed, rather than turning away from Minnie, he supplements his unquenchable desire for his sister by seducing his 14-year-old cousin, Stella. These episodes of incestuous statuary rape alternately thrill and appal Ira. They infect everything else he does. Most notably, when he meets the college literary crowd and the discussion turns to a literary analysis of biblical accounts of incest, Ira scorns the students for their merely academic understanding, but scorns himself for his own deeper knowledge. As in Rude Stream, Roth interrupts the narrative with digressive conversations with Ecclesias, his computer, which, like a good literary editor, discusses his progress, makes suggestions, and calls him to book when he pontificates, prevaricates or hedges. Of particular note here is Roth's admission to Ecclesias that he was not going to include Minnie in the novel at all. That is, he was willing to omit the central character of Ira's obsessive adolescence, the motivating character of the novel. What Roth is suggesting here is that the author of this autobiographical novel (who may or may not have committed incest with his real-life sister, but in any case used the story for literary purposes) has been alienated from both his central character and his own novel. Omitting Minnie from the book, and therefore from the 'official' account of his life, may be the only way to purge himself of his guilt (as man? as novelist?). But then he would be guilty of gross dishonesty as artist, historian, and, perhaps, as autobiographer. In the earlier novel, it was not altogether clear in these digressions that Ira and Henry Roth are the same person. In this book, it is Ira who speaks to Ecclesias, and the fictional facade separating author and character vaporises. Henry is Ira, writing in the 1990s, married to Henry's wife Muriel, suffering the ailments of old age that help identify Henry, the author who ruminates over the 60 years between his books. The two men merge - the antithesis of alienation. This may seem contradictory. Roth has alienated himself from Ira, who is a fictional character, but he is, simultaneously, Ira. The tension inherent in this paradox produces a novel of exceptional power and challenge because the fact of alienation also produces what any artist requires: a unique perspective.