Waiting for death, Philip Roth's `Everyman' affirms the value of life

Review Novel

May 14, 2006|By DONNA RIFKIND | DONNA RIFKIND,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Everyman

Philip Roth

Houghton Mifflin / 192 pages / $24

Let's try to forget, for the moment, that this book's author is Philip Roth, author of 27 books, winner of nearly every American literary honor, including the Pulitzer Prize, two National Book Awards, and, just two weeks ago, the PEN/Nabokov Award for "enduring originality and consummate craftsmanship."

As a living legend, Roth tends to send his readers into a dither, causing them to babble with excessive praise or, more traditionally, to sputter with invective. Worse still, every volume he publishes sets off a frenzy of career reassessments in which critics compete to show how many clever connections they can make among Roth's works.

In looking at his somewhat experimental new novel, it might be a useful experiment to change direction. Let's see what happens if we pretend that we don't know anything about the author except that he's 73 and lives alone in Connecticut. That way we don't have to consider whether the hero of the new book more resembles David Kepesh of The Dying Animal or Mickey Sabbath of Sabbath's Theater, or whether all three characters are incarnations of Roth, or whether Roth's preoccupation with sex is a good or a bad thing. Instead, we can strip down the situation and take a look at the new book all by itself, free of past associations.

Everyman is a short, stripped-down novel whose subjects are the humiliation and alienation of sickly old age. Its title affiliates the book loosely with the medieval Christian morality play of the same name, in which a pleasure seeker conducts a final reckoning with Death. The new book's protagonist, an anonymous, 71-year-old man, has been removed through divorce, retirement and ill health from most of the activities and relationships of his productive years, and reduced to his essential, not always working, parts.

Once you've agreed to read a novel whose cheerless subject is end-of-life decrepitude and isolation, what can you expect from it? If you're looking for intellectual stimulation, you won't find it here. You won't be diverted by a big, detail-stuffed plot. What about the profound religious sensibility that underpins the Everyman morality play? Not available. Consolation? Dream on.

But if you are able to summon what this book expects from you, which is a thorough emotional engagement with the predicament of its main character, then I believe you will find, as I did, the same gratification you might receive from a more conventional and more encumbered work of fiction. Roth encourages this emotional engagement in some interesting ways. He has chosen to shift the narrative focus from the main events of the protagonist's life - a happy New Jersey boyhood, a successful Manhattan advertising career, three divorces, three children - to his medical history. This turns out to be nowhere near as boring as it sounds. It's especially appropriate, in fact, in a book about old age, in which, as Roth writes, "personal biographies ... become identical with ... medical biographies."

Each of this character's hospitalizations (for a hernia operation when he's 9, acute appendicitis at 34, quintuple bypass at 56, and a steady series of surgeries to open obstructed arteries) is dramatic and momentum-gathering, each conjuring the childish helplessness of his first operation while adding new distresses of its own. Just as absorbing as these medical episodes are the glimpses Roth provides of the life lived between them. "Once upon a time I was a full human being," mourns our hero, and the hungry memories of his "superabundant past" make the current emptiness, "the physical deterioration and the terminal sadness and the waiting and waiting for nothing" all the more painful.

In that past there are bitter failures, most crucially his three ruined marriages and the estrangement of his two unforgiving sons, on which our hero ruminates during much of the lonely time at his Jersey Shore retirement village, alternating between self-castigation and defensiveness. But what stands out more than the failures are the bountiful examples of this life's sweetness. There's his childhood in Elizabeth, N.J., Edenic despite the war and the Depression, with afternoons spent helping out at his father's jewelry store, and with summers of blissful swimming at the shore. There is an older brother, Howie, an athlete and financial wizard with a touching, lifelong devotion to his younger sibling, and a grown daughter named Nancy, the Cordelia to Everyman's Lear.

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