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 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...
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