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What a Drag It Is Getting Old

 

By John Dicker

Everyman

By Philip Roth

Houghton Mifflin, 192 pages, $24

What was it Woody Allen said, “Death is easy and comedy is hard”? Well Philip Roth just upended that assertion in a big way. In his latest novel Everyman, death proves to be very hard indeed. It’s full of mixed feelings, regret, and for something so inevitable, the entire process still manages to arrive as a shock.

“Old age is not a battle,” Roth writes, “old age is a massacre.”

Chipper as that sounds, Everyman is vintage Roth: Full of passion, anger and vivid details of lives well lived and profoundly screwed up. Roth’s recent work has been devoted to historical and political epochs. The Human Stain lashed out simultaneously at political correctness in the Academy and sexual Puritanism in the Lewinsky affair. Most recently, Roth’s widely well-received The Plot Against America toyed with the “what ifs . . . ” of Nazi- sympathizer Charles Lindbergh getting the Republican nomination and defeating FDR.

Though Roth hasn’t shied away from mortality issues, Everyman is something of thematic departure. Yes, the narrative is firmly embedded in his native northern New Jersey. And yes, his now patented storytelling tricks of recounting a complicated life through a third person, rearview mirror perspective is in full effect. What’s different here is that the focus is on death and dying above all else—history, culture, even the characters themselves. Maybe this is why Roth doesn’t even bother giving his protagonist a name. This brief, dim and thoroughly intense novel recounts the walls closing in around a man so fast it renders nomenclature irrelevant.

If we don’t know his name, we do know our main character has lived a life of ups and downs. A career advertising man, he married, had two sons and an affair and then divorced. Then he did the same thing all over again, swapping a well-matched wife for a swimsuit model. (Haven’t we all?) In retrospect, there’s a minimum of moral recrimination in all of this. His affairs were what they were. Now in his 70s, with a daughter who loves him and two sons who curse his name, his convalescence is less golden than a stark gray.

In one devastating scene, he tries flirting with a buxom, sports-bra clad jogger who, much to our surprise, flirts back. However, she doesn’t do anything with the phone number he hands her and the end result is a lonely reminder of the gap between his still ticking libido and demographic reality.

Bromides about age providing comforts of “perspective” or notions that older people don’t fear dying because, you know, it’s all part of life, are not countenanced by Roth. Our narrator is not invested in whining, and his regrets aren’t rooted in anger. Rather, his overwhelming emotional state is a modus operandi of serving as some sort of mule for emotional baggage.

Then, of course, there’s his physical condition, which was never entirely perfect to begin with. His life has been one of intermittent bouts with sudden illness, followed by years and years of stability: A hernia operation at nine, a near-deadly appendix bursting at 33; a recipe for confusion and resentment to be sure, as there’s never a gradual transition towards infirmity.

This is not his only unpleasant reality. His contemporaries are sick or dying off—his fellow colleagues, his second wife, the widows at the assisted living facility where he lives. Naturally the mourning is not limited to the grief of others. Witness:

 

The affection of the sons of his first marriage he no longer pursued; he had never done the right thing by their mother or by them, and to resist the repetitiveness of these accusations and his sons versions of family history would require a measure of combativeness that had vanished from his arsenal. The combativeness had been replaced by a huge sadness. If he yielded in the solitude of his long evenings to the temptation to call one or the other of them, he always felt saddened afterward, saddened and beaten.

As you can probably guess, Everyman doesn’t brim with happy fun fun. However, fans of serious fiction in general and Roth in particular know to seek other forms of satisfaction. And there’s no shortage of it in scenes where loss and grief manifest in ways so specific you’re practically forced to marvel at their mechanical rendering above their content. Because doing so is like staring at the sun, or more accurately, gazing at the guest of honor at an open casket funeral.

Redemption is a scarce commodity in Everyman. Any sort of Ebenezer Scrooge, “seize the day” epiphany is entirely absent from these pages, as it should be. While we might safely assume we won’t end up in the exact, lonely circumstances of our unnamed ad man, Roth’s take on death suggests a more pleasant alternative to the whole thing would surely be an instant-death car crash. After finishing this black book, the prospect will seem downright twee. How’s that for a happy ending?

 


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