a Drag It Is Getting Old
Houghton Mifflin, 192 pages, $24
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.
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
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
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.
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
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