EVERYMAN by Philip Roth (Houghton Mifflin/Thomas Allen), 162 pages, $31.95 cloth. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
Philip Roth's everyman is classic Roth: full of passion, anger, vivid details of lives well lived and profoundly screwed up, especially screwed up by the book's unnamed protagonist. He's a 70-something career ad man married three times and now facing his decline with a daughter who loves him and two sons (and as many wives) who curse his name.
Though Roth hasn't shied away from considerations of mortality in the past, Everyman is something of a thematic departure. Yes, the narrative is firmly embedded in his native northern New Jersey. And, yes, his now patented storytelling trick of recounting a complicated life through a third-person, rearview-mirror perspective is in full effect.
What's different here is the focus on death and dying above all else, including history, culture and even the characters themselves.
For Roth, dying isn't something that happens in your later years that's just when it becomes unavoidable. The narrator spends his days alone, grieving the loss of sexual prowess (but not his libidinal yearning) and the fact that his relationships with his sons have been poisoned by rage, and resenting his multimillionaire brother who has known only perfect health.
Some of the details are far creepier than the prospect of our protagonist's body actually going underground. A gravedigging scene in a largely forgotten cemetery beneath the New Jersey Turnpike is indescribably sad in all its vivid, reportorial detail. The protagonist himself is not a man who inspires excessive sympathy.
Everyman doesn't brim with happy fun. However, fans of serious fiction in general and of Roth in particular know to seek other forms of satisfaction in his work. And there's no shortage of it in scenes where loss and grief manifest in marvellous ways.
Reading Everyman is like staring at the sun or, more accurately, gazing at the guest of honour at an open-casket funeral.
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