Everyman

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Anyone who lives into old age becomes all too familiar with illness and death. It is hardly surprising, then, that older writers find themselves drawn to examining these hard realities. In the past few years, for example, backward glances, dark thoughts, and last things have been prominent parts of works as diverse as Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein (2000), John Updike’s Villages (2004), Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), and the late poems of Stanley Kunitz and Czesaw Miosz.

At seventy-three, Philip Roth has had his own share of medical problems and has suffered the personal losses and brushes with mortality that are the lot of someone his age. However, he has been writing about these subjects since the beginning of his fifty-year career. In fact, although he may be best known for treatments of the male body as a source of sex and desire which discomfit or offend many readers, in retrospect it seems that he has written nearly as much about the body as a site of illness and death. His first published story, “The Day It Snowed” (1954), concerns a young boy’s first experience of the reality of death and his own death shortly afterward. Roth’s first full-length novel, Letting Go (1962), begins with a letter from its main character’s dead mother. The series of novels about the life and career of his alter-ego Nathan Zuckerman, collected in Zuckerman Bound (1985), treats the deaths of both of Zuckerman’s parents as well as his own serious illness. The Counterlife (1986) imagines the death not only of Zuckerman’s brother but of Zuckerman himself.

Since The Facts: A Novelist’s Autobiography (1988), written after Roth had suffered a serious breakdown and while his father was dying, these subjects have been a central concern of nearly all of his work. Patrimony: A True Story (1991) recounts his father’s life, illness, and death. Operation Shylock (1993) begins with a harrowing description of the suicidal depression its author faced during that 1987 breakdown, which occurred after taking Halcion for an injury. Sabbath’s Theater (1995) is a long cry of rage against the death of loved ones and the prospect of extinction. Each of the novels in Roth’s American trilogyAmerican Pastoral (1997), I Married a Communist (1998), and The Human Stain (2000)takes the form of an increasingly isolated and debilitated Nathan Zuckerman recounting and trying to understand the life of a central character who has died. The focus of The Dying Animal (2001) is stated in its title. Key moments in Roth’s best-selling historical novel The Plot Against America (2004) concern the war wounds of young Philip’s cousin and the deaths that occur in a Charles Lindbergh-led fascist America.

“Can you imagine old age?” the seventy-year-old monologist David Kepesh asks his unidentified listener in The Dying Animal. “Of course you can’t. I didn’t. I couldn’t. I had no idea what it was like. Not even a false imageno image. And nobody wants anything else. Nobody wants to face any of this until he has to.” Roth has never been an advocate of avoidance; on the contrary, talking about what most people leave undiscussed has been an important part of his stock in trade. So, in this new little book on one of the largest of subjects, “Nobody” becomes “Everyman,” and Roth not only imagines what old age is often like, not only creates a seventy-one-year-old man who must face it, but also asks his readers to face it, tooin all its loss, regret, physical decline, and mental confusion but also in its overwhelming memories, nostalgia, and tenderness.

Roth described the book to an...

(This entire section contains 1819 words.)

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interviewer as “very dark,” and there is no doubt that it is. It is also masterfully crafted, beautifully written, courageous, and deeply touchingespecially for those who have experienced what it describes in their parents or grandparents, their friends, their loved ones, or themselves.

While its title is an allusion to the late fifteenth century medieval morality play of the same namean allegory in which Everyman meets Death and must review his life and put aside the false values of this world in order to find redemption and salvationit also refers to the popular meaning of the word in modern times: the idea of a common man whose experiences are representative, if not wholly typical. Roth’s unnamed Everyman, like many, has been married and divorced, has injured children as well as former wives by abandoning them to seek happiness with other women, and has had a successful if not deeply satisfying career. He finds his dreams of a pleasant retirement shaken and then shattered by illness, and becomes increasingly isolated and depressed as medical procedures, death, and bad temper cut him off from the people who have mattered most in his life. He spends more and more time remembering the past (especially his parents and his innocent boyhood), vacillates between justifying himself and his life and despairing at the mistakes he has made, makes plans he cannot realize as his constantly failing powers betray him, and confronts all of this without the consolations of religious faith or belief in an afterlife.

The novella contains echoes of William Shakespeare’s King Lear (c. 1605-1606) and Hamlet (c. 1600-1601) as well as Leo Tolstoy’s Smert’ Ivana Il’icha (1886; The Death of Ivan Ilyich, 1887), Thomas Mann’s Der Tod in Venedig (1912; Death in Venice, 1925) and Der Zauberberg (1924; The Magic Mountain, 1927), and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Rakovy korpus (1968; Cancer Ward, 1968) as well as the medieval morality play. What it echoes most clearly, however, are characters and episodes from Roth’s previous fiction and, especially, the two works of nonfictionThe Facts and Patrimonyin which he has told his readers most about his own boyhood and his family. His Everyman’s father is much like the Herman Roth described in the memoirs and also combines qualities of Herman and his younger son, Philip.

Like both fathers, Everyman’s philosophy is rooted in hard work and indomitability. Like Herman Roth and his son, the novella’s septuagenarian is deeply connected to the past. (“You mustn’t forget anythingthat’s the inscription on his coat of arms,” Philip thinks of his father in Patrimony.) Like Philip, his Everyman has operations for a hernia at nine and appendicitis at thirty-four and undergoes a quadruple bypass at fifty-six. In addition to having loving and protective parents, they share an admired older brother and memories of a happy boyhood growing up in New Jersey.

The novella’s power owes as much to its narrative form as to its subjects. Its first three words are “At the cemetery”; its last three, “from the start.” It begins at the endhis funeraland then goes back to recount his life, concluding on the operating table where he dies, thinking about his beginnings rather than his end, two days before that funeral.

The first fifteen pages of the novella, devoted to that funeral, which introduce all of the book’s themes, images, and major characters, are simply extraordinary. The old Jewish cemetery in Elizabeth, New Jersey, where he is being buried next to his parents is described by his daughter, Nancy, in terms that could as easily be applied to the deceased, whose body bears the scars of ten operations, and to many others like him:Things have rotted and toppled over, the gates are rusted, the locks are gone, there’s been vandalism . . . looking around at the deterioration here breaks my heartas it probably does yours, and perhaps even makes you wonder why we’re assembled on grounds so badly scarred by time.

Then his older brother, Howie, speaks in the pitch-perfect, plainspoken words and cadence of a former Jersey boy that no one has ever captured as well as Philip Roth: “My kid brother. It makes no sense. . . . Let’s see if I can do it. Now let’s get to this guy. About my brother . . . ”

Rhyming with Nancy’s reference to time, Howie reminisces about his little brother’s youth, telling about how much he loved to spend it with the hundreds of discarded watches in the back room of their father’s jewelry store; how he claimed their father’s Hamilton watch after his death and wore it until two days before, when he entered an operating room for the last time; and how Nancy has now put a new notch in the band and is wearing it on her wrist. The angry sons then approach the grave. One cannot speak and looks as though he is going to retch. His older brother grabs a clod of dirt, throws it down onto the casket, and says “Sleep easy, Pop,” while “any note of tenderness, grief, love, or loss was terrifyingly absent from his voice.”

The unidentified narrator, who shares the telling of the story with the thoughts and recollections of its unnamed main character, then closes the section with the observation that. Up and down the state that day, there’d been five hundred funerals like his, routine, ordinary, and except for the thirty wayward seconds furnished by the sonsand Howie’s resurrecting with such painstaking precision the world as it innocently existed before the invention of death, life perpetual in their father-created Eden, a paradise just fifteen feet wide by forty feet deep disguised as an old-style jewelry storeno more or less interesting than the others.

The next section begins with the main character lying in bed the night before the fatal surgery “remembering as exactly as he could each of the women who had been there waiting for him to rise out of the anesthetic in the recovery room” after each of his operations. The rest of this episodic novella proceeds to review his life in scenes tied to his medical history that blend into memories of the major events in his life. Many of these episodes and memoriesespecially his thoughts and his conversations with his parents before his hernia operation at nine, his father’s funeral, the story of the widow Millicent Kramer, the words his second wife Phoebe says when she learns of his affair with a model which destroys their marriage, his recollections of riding the waves at the Jersey shore as a boy, and the visit he makes to his parents at the same Elizabeth cemetery where he will soon be buried himselfare unforgettable.

“I’m seventy-one. Your boy is seventy-one,” he says aloud to his parents at the cemetery in the book’s final pages. “Look back and atone for what you can atone for, and make the best of what you have left,” his father replies. “Good. You lived,” says his mother. “He couldn’t go,” the episode concludes. “The tenderness was out of control. As was the longing for everyone to be living. And to have it all all over again.” In Everyman, Philip Roth manages to write a serious book about death and dying that is this full of life and longing.

Bibliography

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The Atlantic Monthly, May, 2006, p. 120.

Booklist 102, no. 13 (March 1, 2006): 46.

The Nation 282, no. 21 (May 29, 2006): 14-16.

The New Republic 234, no. 19 (May 22, 2006): 28-32.

New Statesman 135 (April 24, 2006): 44-45.

The New York Review of Books 53, no. 10 (June 8, 2006): 8-12.

The New York Times 155 (April 26, 2006): E1-E9.

The New York Times Book Review 155 (May 7, 2006): 1-10.

The New Yorker 82, no. 11 (May 1, 2006): 82-87.

Newsweek 147, no. 18 (May 1, 2006): 63.

Publishers Weekly 253, no. 8 (February 20, 2006): 132.

The Washington Post, May 14, 2006, p. BW07.

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