Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1841
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),...
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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 gluttonous undergraduates. His wife finally threw him out of the house, insisted on a divorce, and remains bitter toward him. He nonetheless insists on marching to his priapic drum, proclaiming his creed:
Because only when you fuck is everything that you dislike in life and everything by which you are defeated in life purely, if momentarily, revenged. Only then are you most cleanly alive and most cleanly yourself. It’s not the sex that’s the corruption—it’s the rest. Sex isn’t just friction and shallow fun. Sex is also the revenge on death. Don’t forget death. Don’t ever forget it. Yes, sex too is limited in its power. I know very well how limited. But tell me, what power is greater?
Kepesh congratulates himself on having mastered what he terms the “discipline” of his single, promiscuous lifestyle. He likes his work and his comfortable duplex, many books, and grand piano, as well as his frequent liaisons. The only casualty that concerns him is his relationship with his son Kenny, now forty-two. He explained to Kenny that he could take only himself over the constricting wall of familial life, that “I had to betray him, and for that I am not forgiven and never will be.” He sees himself as the adventuresome Ulysses, while his son is the domestic-minded Telemachus, defending his abandoned mother.
Switching literary allusions, Kepesh sees himself as the lecherous and depraved Fyodor Karamazov, father of three sons whose roles Kenny plays. At twenty-one, Kenny impregnated one of his classmates, refused to urge her to abort the fetus, and married her despite his father’s plea that he was prematurely abandoning his freedom. Kepesh mocks Kenny’s need to do the honorable, admirable thing, such as generating three additional children to please a wife he finds dull and tedious. Kenny now has his first mistress, but insists theirs is a serious relationship: She is a chemist, has a degree in art history, plays the oboe, and has wonderful parents. Kepesh is sardonic: “My son can fuck only a girl with the right moral credentials.”
One of Philip Roth’s grand themes, from Portnoy’s Complaint (1968) onward, has been the unassuageable drive of male desire and hence the inevitable antagonism of id and superego, lust and society. Kepesh’s most recent comrade in loins is Mickey Sabbath, the antihero ofSabbath’s Theater (1995). Sabbath is Roth’s most outrageous character, an over-the-top satyr and all-around transgressor, the personification of Dionysian excess, nasty, foul-mouthed, self-deluded, and willfully selfish.
While also sexually compulsive, David Kepesh is far more restrained than Mickey Sabbath. He is self-disciplined, bright, incisive, witty. He is willing to pay the price of social isolation and loneliness, even rejection by a resentful son. Furthermore, he regards himself as a serious moral protagonist of a way of living most people would consider self-indulgent and immoral. He endorses a like-living friend’s motto, “He who forms a tie is lost.”
This friend is George O’Hearn, a poet, David Kepesh’s closest confidant, hedonistic companion, and occasional confessor. Once Consuela, after the liaison’s end, mailed Kepesh a postcard featuring Amedeo Modigliani’s Reclining Nude, whose beautiful breasts competed with hers. George, keeper of the priapic faith, insisted that he not respond to the suggestive signal. He warned Kepesh that he stood in danger of falling in love, of permitting his feelings to fracture his aesthetic distance from women. Five months before Kepesh begins his monologue, O’Hearn died from a stroke, although only fifty-five. During his last days, George, the inveterate adulterer, was nonetheless surrounded by his immediate family. In his last minutes of life, he kissed and tried to undress his wife, Kate, with whom he had not had sex for years. After his death she wondered, wearily, for which woman her husband had mistaken her.
Many readers will be discomfited, perhaps even revolted, by this short novel. A considerable catalog of complaints can be compiled against its protagonist. He is a narcissistic sexual addict, selfish, an irresponsible parent, a dirty old man, a male chauvinist who consistently reduces women to erotic objects and minimizes their other qualities and needs. A question perhaps impossible to answer is to what degree Philip Roth intends David Kepesh to be a serious moral (or immoral) crusader, and to what degree Kepesh serves as an old dog who refuses to leave his bone (or penis) alone. The novella’s title is taken from W. B. Yeats’s great poem “Sailing to Byzantium”;
Consume my heart away; sick with desire/ And fastened to a dying animal/ It knows not what it is . . .
Kepesh here cites lines from a poem in which an old man would gladly exchange his waning sensuality for the timeless satisfactions of art. The opposite, of course, holds true for Kepesh. He uses Yeats’s words as an ironic antitext when he recalls playing a Mozart sonata to a nude Consuela until the music is stopped by their sexual climax. Not for him is the poem’s assertion that an aged man is no more than “a tattered coat upon a stick”; not for him the plea to be gathered “Into the artifice of eternity.” The book’s title and Kepesh’s conduct mock one another.
Readers offended by The Dying Animal will condemn the work for moral reasons. Yet a cogent counterargument can be mounted to defend Roth. The literary value of a text should be independent of the truth or acceptability of its thesis, otherwise the devout Catholicism of Dante or the Puritanism of Milton or the ecstatic religiosity of Dostoyevsky or the atheism of Jean-Paul Sartre could make their books acceptable only to equally committed readers. Hence, whether one approves or disapproves of David Kepesh’s conduct should have no bearing on the aesthetic value of Roth’s novella. The central question to be asked is whether it effectively illuminates one or more significant aspects of human behavior, and the answer to that can only be, yes.
David Kepesh, like him or not, is convincingly consistent, motivated, and plausible, and the situations he experiences are vividly and often wittily realized. The artistic objection one can arguably make is that Roth’s book is too sketchy, with the reader learning too little about Kepesh’s former wife, parents, or other women. Moreover, his confederate and confidant George O’Hearn is introduced late in the novel, mainly for his death, rather than keeping Kepesh (and the reader) company from its beginning.
This book succeeds four superb novels Roth had published during the past decade: Operation Shylock (1993), Sabbath’s Theater (1995), American Pastoral (1997), and The Human Stain (2000). Compared to this quartet, Roth has here painted a miniature, yet he is such a gifted stylist and trenchant observer that even this thin work furnishes the reader many rewards.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist 97 (May 15, 2001): 1708.
Library Journal 126 (May 1, 2001): 128.
The Nation 272 (June 11, 2001): 42.
The New York Review of Books 48 (July 5, 2001): 28.
The New York Times Book Review 106 (May 27, 2001): 8.
Publishers Weekly 248 (March 26, 2001): 59.