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Until the Bitter End

 

By John Dicker

Exit Ghost

By Philip Roth

Houghton Mifflin, 304 pages, $26

Philip Roth’s last novel Everyman chronicled a man’s descent into death after a life that taught him very little about his nature. His new novel Exit Ghost is far sunnier: It’s about another man’s descent into a state in which everything he knows about his limitations is painfully reconfirmed through a spate of poor judgment.

Imagine if, at age 70, male human beings were compelled to relearn developmental lessons like “hot means hot.” An entire generation puts their finger to the frying pan even though they know what they’ll get. That’s the rough equivalent of Exit Ghost, the last great hurrah of Roth’s famous alter ego Nathan Zuckerman. It’s actually a bit more enjoyable, for Roth observers at least, than this glib characterization, but it certainly begs the question . . .

Can we please get this otherwise amazing novelist off his death trip? Yes, dark explorations yield profound insights and they’re arguably inevitable for any serious artist. So let me clarify: Philip Roth, winner of the Pulitzer, three Penn Faulkners and enough lesser prizes to stock a dozen Chinese container ships, and the only living novelist to have his work collected by the American Library, has produced some of his finest work in the last decade. From the complicated prison of race, class and political correctness in The Human Stain to the history as imagined horror of The Plot Against America, Roth’s last half dozen novels have, in this the mid- September of his years, become more pointed, but without losing any of the delightful hostility of his earlier days. But lately he seems content to pick at the scabs of his mortality.

The short of Exit Ghost is this: Nathan Zuckerman, having forsworn the life of a famous writer—teaching classes, giving interviews, having relationships—accidentally emerges from his decade of self exile in western Massachusetts. In part because of a series of threatening letters from an anonymous anti-Semite Zuckerman sought safety in the countryside during the 1990s. More than that, he aimed to wipe out all distractions from his work. He succeeds. Minimal social calls, no wife, no kids—just work.

Of course, because this is a novel our protagonist gives it one more go. You see, Zuckerman may be a man of letters but he’s now a man of diapers as well. Left incontinent and impotent by prostate surgery, he returns to Manhattan to see an urologist who, he’s assured, can restore him to his previous state.

So intoxicating is this specter of hope that it opens up the door to all sorts of abandoned yearnings. Like an affair with a beautiful, decidedly unavailable (and inappropriately aged) woman. A significant portion of the novel is written in the form of a play, imagined dialogue between Zuckerman and Jamie, the 30-year-old woman whose Upper West Side apartment he contemplates swapping for his Massachusetts home for one year. While the seduction is intriguing and perhaps even erotic, it quickly descends into somewhat intellectual masturbation as Zuckerman (and Roth, and the reader) know it cannot, and will not go anywhere beyond tortured longing.

The most pleasurable moments in Exit Ghost are the ancillary riffs. So alluring is Roth’s pitch for Zuckerman’s willful retreat into political ignorance it could function as some sort of Club Med for today’s weary dissidents. Witness:

 

The despising without remission that constitutes being a conscientious citizen in the reign of George W. Bush was not for one who had developed a strong interest in surviving as reasonably serene—and so I began to annihilate the abiding wish to find out. I canceled magazine subscriptions, stopped reading The Times, even stopped picking up the occasional copy of the Boston Globe when I went down to the general store

Ultimately, Zuckerman proves incapable of living out his days as an anchorite of letters. It’s just that when a string of opportunities pop up in rapid succession, he can’t resist. He knows too well that his foray into the world he left behind is doomed to failure and so it fails. Prostate be damned, he beats a path back to the Berkshires and the artificial barriers he erected eleven years ago.

Zuckerman was once Roth’s sounding board for entertaining, if indulgent, ideas about a writer and his work. The character proved much more useful as a sounding board, a narrative conduit for the likes of characters like Coleman Silk in The Human Stain or Swede Levov in American Pastoral. So it’s sad to bid the alter ego farewell, but it’s good riddance to his graying anxiety. Zuckerman, and Roth, are at their best when looking backward. Both of their futures are too preoccupied with crafting eulogies to manhood lost. That is until Pfizer comes up with Viagra of the soul.


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