Is this the last of Nathan Zuckerman?

Review Novel

October 14, 2007|By Victoria A. Brownworth | Victoria A. Brownworth,[Special to The Sun]

Exit Ghost

By Philip Roth

Houghton Mifflin / 294 pages / $26

The process of dying is long, lonely and arduous, which goes a long way toward explaining why we don't like to discuss it much in literary fiction. The failure of the body - incontinence, impotence, jagged scars and missing hair - it's grim stuff, nightmare material.

There's the dramatic dying, of course - the opening pages of Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead certainly exploit the harrowing nature of sudden, youthful death. Dickens, the Brontes, Conrad, Poe - most literary classicists have given us dramatic deaths. Not much can compare to Anna Karenina throwing herself under the train after Vronsky rejects her or Raskolnikov doing in the landlady.

But the quotidian nature of most dying, that happens off the page.

Not for Philip Roth, however. He's pretty keen on bringing the reality of what it means to age and die in America into the realm of literary fiction, and as America's most lauded novelist (is there an award he hasn't won?) and one of its most prolific, Roth gets to write about whatever he wants, whenever he wants and does.

His latest novel, Exit Ghost, is the ninth in Roth's playfully autobiographical Nathan Zuckerman series, which began with The Ghostwriter in 1979. Roth's publisher declares this is the last Nathan Zuckerman novel. But since Zuckerman is still alive, and so is Roth, that remains to be seen.

Roth has always been a problematic writer. Women don't like him - not the women in his books and not women readers. He's definitely a man's man, but he's also a writer's writer. Roth's always writing about writing, even when he's writing about sex (Portnoy's Complaint) or religion (Sabbath's Theatre) or politics (American Pastoral).

And he's writing about writing when he's writing about dying.

Exit Ghost is about writing and dying. But it's also about sex and memory. And wit and pathos. It's Proustian and Portnoyan at the same time.

The first 30 pages or so tell the reader more than he (especially) or she (peripherally) would ever want to know about the vicissitudes of post-prostate cancer surgery: incontinence and impotence. The humiliation that leads to isolation when the body breaks down is described in crisp, reportorial prose that has the impact of tremendous poignancy. We feel for Zuckerman. How awful to have to swim in the freezing waters of the pond in the Berkshires where he lives the life of a hermit, because he can't bear the thought of anyone seeing him leaking urine into the warm water of the local pool.

Do we want to know all this about Zuckerman's prostate at 70-plus? Perhaps not, particularly as it is likely also Roth's prostate, as Zuckerman is Roth's longtime literary alter ego, and we might not want to know about Roth in Depends. We might not like to think that rather than a character in Exit Ghost saying to Zuckerman, "You smell bad, old man, you smell like death," these words had been uttered to Roth. Perhaps uttered merely by Roth himself, but nevertheless spoken, and therein lies the complicated nature of the Roth/Zuckerman/Ghost triumvirate.

Nevertheless, it's the leaking bladder that leads Zuckerman to New York after a hiatus of over a decade for an experimental treatment. This trip, in turn, leads him on a journey of memory and reflection related to his former mentor and literary hero, E.I. Lonoff, when he accidentally encounters Amy Bellette, Lonoff's former mistress and nurse, after having picked up the entire collected works of Lonoff at the Strand, used, for under $100.

The Lonoff-Bellette connection is just one path Zuckerman begins to travel as he writes his latest novel and rereads the same Conrad novels nearly every night. There's Jaime Logan, one half of a young couple he meets and, on a whim, decides to swap homes with. (They are suffering from the immediacy of post-Sept. 11 syndrome and Zuckerman is on a quest. Suspend disbelief.) Zuckerman's sexual dormancy gets shocked to life by Jaime's beautiful sexiness. In true Rothian, Portnoyan fashion, we are led to believe she would desert her handsome, virile, young novelist husband for the one-step-from-dying Zuckerman. Why not? He's famous, isn't he? Suspend disbelief.

And then there is the demonic and self-aggrandizing young turk, Richard Kliman, out to write the definitive biography of Lonoff.

Bellette, however, is a purist with a brain tumor and she'll have none of it. She enlists Zuckerman to rid her of the troublesome Kliman, a task to which Zuckerman takes with gusto, annoyed by Kliman's obviousness and his connection to Jaime.

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