Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 566
Nathan Zuckerman, the protagonist, a successful writer and author of the notorious best-selling novelCarnovsky. For eighteen months, he has been suffering inexplicably from extreme neck and back pains that prevent him from extensive reading and even from writing, though he feels he has nothing left to write about. To make matters worse, he has turned forty. He lives alone, and to help ease his pain he not only drinks and smokes marijuana but also has a bevy of four girlfriends who visit him at different times and cater to his needs, including his sexual needs. Finally, in desperation, he decides to give up writing and become a doctor.
Robert (Bobby) Freytag
Robert (Bobby) Freytag, Nathan’s college chum who is now a successful anesthesiologist in Chicago. Nathan flies to Chicago to consult with him about applying to medical school. Bobby’s mother died three weeks earlier, and at the cemetery with Bobby’s aggrieved father, Nathan loses his head (he has been taking too much Percodan and drinking vodka), attacks the old man, and falls on a gravestone, fracturing his skull and sustaining other injuries.
Henry Zuckerman, Nathan’s younger brother, who believes that Carnovsky was a terrible affront to American Jews in general and to the Zuckerman family in particular. He holds Nathan responsible for hastening the death of their father, whose dying breath sounded like a curse on his older son. A year later, their adoring mother also dies, but Nathan does not arrive in time to hear her last words. Before her death, she scribbles the word “holocaust” on a scrap of paper, which Nathan carries with him, trying to figure out what she meant.
Milton Appel, a professor and literary critic whose severe criticism of Carnovsky and his other fiction Zuckerman finds it impossible to forgive. The criticism rankles still more when Appel wants Zuckerman to help defend Israeli interests by writing something “uplifting” about the country and its ideals.
Jaga, a Polish émigré who works as a receptionist in the office of Nathan’s trichologist (among his other ailments, Nathan is suffering from hair loss). At first, she plays hard to get, but eventually she yields to Nathan’s charms and becomes one of his four playmates. During their lovemaking, she utters long monologues about herself and her hopeless existence as a woman and an exile.
Gloria, the wife of Nathan’s accountant and another of the female comforters who visit him. She enjoys making rice pudding for him and wearing a G-string.
Jenny, a painter who lives in Vermont and tries to lure Nathan away from New York to the country, where they could live a healthy life and eat fresh vegetables.
Diana, a rich heiress and the youngest of Nathan’s four lovers and comforters. A student at Finch College, she tries to help Nathan by appealing to the Protestant work ethic. She also tries to convince him to stop hating Appel and write the essay.
Ricky, the female chauffeur who drives Nathan from the airport in Chicago to his hotel. En route, Nathan assumes the identity of Milton Appel, whom he describes as an arch pornographer. He tries hard to entice Ricky, but he is no match against her sturdy independence and healthy mental state. Finally, after long enduring his tirades and propositions, she tells him off.