There’s no God here, no afterlife. Instead, our protagonist tries to craft meaning from his own history—and while others seek solace in art and in family, for him, these props drop away. Physical sensation is all that remains. “Should he ever write an autobiography,” Everyman muses at one point, “he’d call it ‘The Life and Death of a Male Body.’ ” He clings to surges of desire, ogling girls on the beach with a neediness that even he finds pathetic.
Finally, though, it is not young women’s bodies that obsess him. It is his own. In some of Roth’s best passages, Everyman is consumed with a nearly autoerotic nostalgia for the pleasure with which he once consumed the world—narcissism turned outward, magnifying the joys of life. “Nothing could extinguish the vitality of that boy whose slender little torpedo of an unscathed body once rode the big Atlantic waves from a hundred yards out in the wild ocean all the way in to shore. Oh, the abandon of it, and the smell of the salt water and the scorching sun! Daylight, he thought, penetrating everywhere, day after summer day of that daylight blazing off a living sea . . .”
Roth’s vision is a bleak one, but at moments like these, there’s beauty in it, too. Everyman may have drowned in sin, yes, but at least he enjoyed the swim on the way out.