The Dying Animal by Philip Roth

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(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

This short novel’s narrator and protagonist, David Kepesh, is one of the fictive advocates whom Roth tends to employ in his novels, though he is not as busily used as Nathan Zuckerman, who is featured in eight of the author’s twenty-four books. Kepesh was first met in The Breast (1972), where a medical catastrophe somehow changed him into a 155-pound female bosom. Then, in The Professor of Desire (1977), he starred in an erotic Bildungsroman, describing his sexual adventures from adolescence to thirty-four. Now he is seventy, white-haired, his neck wattled, but still the possessor of considerable sexual energy—unlike the now impotent and incontinent Nathan Zuckerman of about the same age.

In The Dying Animal, Kepesh informs the reader that he now mostly works as a cultural pundit on National Public Radio and New York’s Channel 13. However, for fourteen weeks each year he gives a senior seminar in Practical Criticism at a New York college. Three-quarters of his students are female. He is careful not to approach any of the young women during the course, but at its end he throws a party for the class at his apartment; almost always, one of the women will stay late, and he and she will have sex and begin an affair. Kepesh considers that the sexual revolution begun in the 1960’s has now triumphed, gloating that “this is a generation of astonishing fellators.”

The spine of his memoir is the description of an affair with a Cuban American woman, Consuela Castillo, whom he met at one of his gatherings eight years previously. She is twenty-four to his sixty-two. She is well-mannered, shy, middlebrow in her tastes, of average mentality, conventional in upbringing, and a typical Rothian sex goddess: white-skinned voluptuous, with big, beautiful breasts that require a D-cup bra. Much of Kepesh’s reverie about this relationship amounts to his rhapsodic worship of those breasts: They are round, full, luscious, with nipples like saucers that irresistibly stir him. Consuela uses them to arouse him over and over. Kepesh worships her as a great, magical work of art. He finds himself in ecstatic but agonizing love, poisoned with jealousy of her previous lovers. When he possesses Consuela he feels unfulfilled, all too aware of his wound of age compared to her youth, fretting that a young man will soon take her from him. On one occasion, driven to humiliation by adoration of his lady-love, he kneels before the menstruating Consuela and licks her clean. She turns him from a professor of desire into a frenzied, humble little boy.

The affair with Consuela lasts eighteen months. It ends when she invites him to her master’s degree graduation party at her parents’ house. He decides he is too old for the nonsense of pretending to her family that he is no more than a kindly mentor to her. Wounded by his absence, she writes him an angry letter rupturing their relationship. Thereafter she contacts him occasionally, but only for job recommendations. Then, six and one-half years after the end of the relationship, she calls him, asks to see him immediately, and reveals that she has breast cancer, with her chance of survival no better than 60 percent. She invites him to bid good-bye to her overwhelming breasts by taking thirty photos of them, with Consuela choosing the poses. He finds himself deeply moved by her plight, but no longer erotically attracted to her. She finally lets him see her head uncovered, with its hair reduced to clumps of thin feathers after her chemotherapy treatments. The next night she calls him from her hospital bed: The doctors have decided to remove one of her breasts. He tells himself he must join her and help care for her. Yet a part of him resists such a course. There the dramatic monologue ends, as Eros struggles with Thanatos.

Accounting for his philosophy of lust above all, Kepesh takes the reader back to the 1960’s. Although married and father of a son, he engaged in prolific adulteries with sexually...

(The entire section is 1,841 words.)