- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 27, 2006

EVERYMAN

By Philip Roth

Houghton Mifflin, $24, 192 pages

Reviewed by Merle Rubin

Suddenly, it seems, everywhere one looks one finds writers tackling the overwhelming question of mortality and all that it entails. In recent years, we’ve seen the emergence of what virtually amounts to a new nonfiction genre of medical narratives by patients coping with a range of serious diseases and disabilities, from AIDS to macular degeneration to rheumatoid arthritis. We’ve had memoirs like Joan Didion’s powerfully candid “The Year of Magical Thinking” testifying to losses that cannot be replaced.

And in the realm of fiction, a similar preoccupation with these sobering themes can be found in works by authors as temperamentally, stylistically and artistically dissimilar as the tart-tongued mistress of social comedy Alison Lurie (“Truth and Consequences”) and that protean, endlessly inventive dynamo Philip Roth (“The Dying Animal”).

Obviously, much of this can be attributed to the fact that writers who first made their names in the decades after World War II have now reached a point in life when explorations of identity, love and sexuality are being replaced by anxieties about decline and death. Growing old, however, does not necessarily entail writing novels about it. In former times, authors who lived on into old age did not usually turn its depredations into a subject for their fiction.

But for a generation of novelists like Mr. Roth, who broke new ground in writing explicitly about sex and other bodily functions, the prospect of the body’s failure has summoned up a response that is just as explicit.

There is more to Mr. Roth’s latest novel, “Everyman,” than mere explicitness, however. It’s a surprisingly brief work which, on one hand, recapitulates classic Philip Roth themes and obsessions, while on the other hand revises and to some extent even recants them.

Beginning with an account of the funeral of its unnamed protagonist, “Everyman” proceeds to tell the story of a man who in some ways seems a familiar Philip Roth type (he’s artistically talented, Jewish, from New Jersey; loves his honest, hardworking parents and reveres his generous older brother) yet he clearly is also intended to be read as a far more universal kind of figure:

“As a young man, he’d thought of himself as square, so conventional and unadventurous that after art school, instead of striking out on his own to paint … he … went into advertising to make a secure living. He never thought of himself as anything more than an average human being…”

In sum, an “Everyman.” Neither hero nor antihero, this unassuming regular guy was “only in his sixties when his health began giving way and his body seemed threatened all the time. He’d married three times, had mistresses and children and an interesting job where he’d been a success, but now eluding death seemed to have become the central business of his life and bodily decay his entire story.”

It’s that last half-sentence which sums up the shift from seeing life as a panoply of choices and possibilities to realizing that it has become little more than an ultimately doomed struggle to ward off death. For decades now, the story that Philip Roth has been telling in so many of his books, from “Portnoy’s Complaint” to “Sabbath’s Theater” to “The Dying Animal,” has expressly been one of the male human body, with sexual release posited as its paramount goal and romantic love portrayed as an illusion.

But contemplating the limitations of mortal flesh and the inevitable waning of its powers in “Everyman,” Mr. Roth arrives at a perspective markedly different from all those where his restless alter-egos have lead him before: more elevated, but no less grounded in reality.

The message is simple, hardly original, yet like most great truths, contains a world of complexity and experience: love is what matters most. But what is love? Walking along the beach, our aging hero can still be energized by a mildly flirtatious encounter with a curvaceous young jogger which not only stirs him physically but also gives him “that sharp sense of individualization, of sublime singularity, that marks a fresh sexual encounter or love affair and that is the opposite of the deadening depersonalization of serious illness.”

Although he’s been married three times, by the time he’s moved to a seaside retirement village in New Jersey, the only woman still in his life is his faithful daughter Nancy. His first wife, in predictable Roth style, was a vicious harpy, but her successor, Phoebe, mother of the admirable Nancy, was beautiful, intelligent, thoughtful and kind. Happy though they were, as he reached middle age, he gave in to temptation.

When Phoebe found out, not only that her husband was having a torrid affair with a young Danish model, but committing what to her was the far greater betrayal of lying about it, she ended her marriage to a man she could no longer trust. He, unsure quite what to do, married the model, to his everlasting regret:

“And when he required emergency coronary artery surgery, he discovered her terror of illness and her uselessness in the face of danger. Altogether he was a little late in learning that all her boldness was encompassed in her eroticism and that her carrying everything erotic between them to the limit was their only overpowering affinity. He had replaced the most helpful wife imaginable with a wife who went to pieces under the slightest pressure.”

Among Everyman’s many cherished, remorse-filled memories of his relationship with Phoebe are those involving the terrible migraine headaches that plagued her. He remembers how deeply he empathized with her pain and how much he tried to help and comfort her. He now feels the same urge to reach out and help one of his fellow retirees, Millicent Kramer, an artistically talented, quietly dignified widow who suffers from agonizing back pain.

“Now he sat beside her on the bed and took her hand in his, thinking: When you are young, it’s how you look on the outside of the body that matters … When you are older, it’s what’s inside that matters …”

Realistic, indeed pessimistic, as ever, Mr. Roth does not give us any heartwarming scenes in which Millicent is miraculously rejuvenated by Everyman’s attentions and concern. The physical pains in her back and her emotional anguish over the loss of her lifelong mate cannot be assuaged. But the deep truth revealed to Everyman is the supreme importance of compassion, of fellow feeling.

Tellingly, Mr. Roth has chosen these poignant lines from Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale” as the epigraph to this novel: “Here, where men sit and hear each other groan; / Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last grey hairs, / Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies; / Where but to think is to be full of sorrow…”

But if one were to reflect upon the change in perspective that one sees in this novel, some lines by another great Romantic, William Wordsworth, seem even more apropos:

“The Clouds that gather round the setting sun / Do take a sober colouring from an eye / That hath kept watch o’er man’s mortality; / Another race hath been, and other palms are won. / Thanks to the human heart by which we live, / Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears, / To me the meanest flower that blows can give / Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.”

Merle Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, California.


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