Philip Roth’s Complaint

(Wikimedia)

No, Everyman, and [if] thou be once there

Thou mayst never more come here,

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Trust me verily.

 - Death, in "Everyman"

It does not get much simpler than that, whether in an early 16th-century Christian devotional drama or in an early 21st-century godless protest. Both the most famous of all morality plays and this powerful novel, part obituary, part cri de coeur, are brief and relentless: You are not coming back, not here anyway, ever. The you in Roth’s case is an unnamed retired artistic director of an ad agency, who shares with the author his birth year (1933), his secular Jewishness, his urban New Jersey roots, his beloved unassuming father, his failed marital career, his bypass surgery, his unquenchable sexual hunger and any number of other crucial bio-data. But in a larger sense the protagonist is Everyman (as opposed to the familiar personas of Zuckerman, Roth and Kepesh), and the problem is mortality.

Book cover
Everymanby Philip Roth

Houghton Mifflin. 182p $24

The anonymous he of the story may suffer from the usual Rothian dysfunctions (he is restless, vociferous, combative and deeply guilty), but these pale before his universal and perfectly normal grief. Roth’s language is mostly matter-of-fact, but often enough he launches into eloquent spasms of what the Germans call erlebte Rede (lived discourse), where writer and character breathe as one. Speaking of daily life in the upscale Starfish Beach retirement community, Roth observes: How long could he watch the tides flood in and flow out without his remembering, as anyone might in a sea-gazing reverie, that life had been given to him, as to all, randomly, fortuitously, and but once, and for no known or knowable reason?’

There is a story here, but it is largely banal and depressing. He abandoned his first unloved wife, Cecilia, and their two sons for a passionate Quaker, Phoebe, with whom he had one flawless, Cordelia-like daughter, Nancy, only to drift into a second adultery with Merete, a young Danish model, whom he later foolishly married and (naturally) divorced. There were various love affairs, none of them lasting; and after fleeing attackable Manhattan (post-9/11), he spent his final years alone (his last meaningful conversation was with the affable black grave-digger who had buried his parents).

The main focus of his life, at least from the vantage point of old age, has been the recurrent emergencies and hospitalizations: hernia at 9, ruptured appendix at 34, then open-heart surgery, renal angioplasty, carotid artery surgery and on and on till death from cardiac arrest while under the knife for still more carotid artery repair. (Ever since Patrimony [1991], the moving account of his father’s death from a brain tumor and his own near-death from heart trouble, Roth has, like many older Americans these days, learned a lot more about high-tech medicine than he ever wanted to.)

So, ethically or esthetically or philosophically speaking, Everyman has not had much of a life. Nor does he have much of a death: no radical insights, epiphanies, confessions, reconciliations, acceptancesnothing. Well, not nothing actually: as he hears about, and responds to, the terminal illnesses of old friends and acquaintances, his voice—i.e., Roth’s ventriloquistic voice—takes on a certain grandeur, at its best like the rumbling, wrathful periods of Moses (himself at death’s door) in Deuteronomy:

Yet what he’d learned was nothing when measured against the inevitable onslaught that is the end of life. Had he been aware of the mortal suffering of every man and woman he happened to have known during all his years of professional life, of each one’s painful story of regret and loss and stoicism, of fear and panic and isolation and dread, had he learned of every last thing they had parted with that had once been vitally theirs and of how, systematically, they were being destroyed, he would have had to stay on the phone through the day and into the night, making another hundred calls at least. Old age isn’t a battle; old age is a massacre.

Or maybe the appropriate biblical parallel is not Moses, but Job. Despite his proverbial patience, Job is vehemently impatient in his nonstop complaints and his refusal to be consoled. Worse yet, he knows there is really no arguing with God. And, sure enough, when the Lord does answer from out of the whirlwind, he never explains or even addresses Job’s agonies. But, if nothing else, Job gets to complain loud and long. (He also gets his health and wealth and a new family; but then he dies like everyone else, and this at a point in Jewish history when death was still thought to be forever.)

Roth’s Everyman is, of course, no moral paragon like Job; but so what? The point is, as the anonymous author of Job laments, Man that is born of a woman is of few days, and full of trouble (14:1). Believers and unbelievers alike can agree on that ageless truth; and Roth’s latest book hauntingly echoes it.

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