But New York, it turns out, is no country for old men. The exquisite torture of having a functional, unruly penis is nothing compared with the baffling, non-exquisite torture of not having one. Zuckerman is haunted all over Manhattan by the ghost of his virility. He’s wrestling now not with actual desire—of which he’s become, over the years, an expert wrangler—but with a more confusing and humiliating force: what he calls “the ghost of my desire.” My reading of Exit Ghost was as volatile as a Roth affair. By page 13, I’d whipped myself into an orgasmic frenzy of marginalia (“heartbreaking, honest, human”), after a poignant micro-biography of Zuckerman’s neighbor Larry, who lives his entire life based on a script he wrote out when he was 10. But soon I relaxed into quieter arousal. The book is like a thoroughly shuffled deck of cards, with moments of perfect psychological clarity and piercing vignettes and bleak wisdom surrounded by all kinds of tedium. I suffered long spells of impatience (an interminable section about the 2004 presidential election) and irritation (persistent cranky ranting about cell phones), followed by more orgasmic approval (a poignant Scandinavian Holocaust story) and more frustration (a seven-page disquisition about George Plimpton where a climax should be). Often, unfortunately, I was just embarrassed. Zuckerman spends much of the book writing fantasy playlets on hotel stationery about himself and the big-breasted young writer. (“Do your breasts give you confidence?” “Yes.” “Tell me about that.”) I suspect the awkwardness is intentional: Roth means to show that old age is subject to the same desperate fantasies as early manhood, without the option to expunge them via sex—but the sections come off as gross and sad and tedious.
The indicator species of Roth’s fiction—the organism whose presence most reliably signals the ecosystem’s overall health—has always been the jokes. Good Roth is the funniest writer alive; his humor converts all of his cranky, self-serious hobbyhorses into high art. But there are perilously few laughs in Exit Ghost. Looking back through my margins, I noticed that the word funny (which runs thickly alongside the text in my copies of Operation Shylock and Sabbath’s Theater and Zuckerman Bound) occurs only twice. (Once, on his birthday, Zuckerman’s middle-aged neighbors pester him into describing what it’s like to be 70, and his answer is priceless: “Think of the year 4000 … Think seriously about 4000. Imagine it. In all its dimensions, in all its aspects. The year 4000. Take your time … That’s what it’s like to be 70.”) It turns out, surprisingly, that Zuckerman’s penis was also his funny bone. Without it, he seems revolted by himself.
I hope this isn’t really the end of Zuckerman. The last line, “Gone for good,” seems only provisionally final, since it’s italicized and between parentheses and contained within a fictional scenario written by Zuckerman himself. If it is over, it would be a shame: Now that the ghost of virility has been exorcized, there’s plenty of serious un-penis-related work to be done. Zuckerman has acquired, over the years, such a special range and depth and boundlessness that I could imagine him narrating us right up to the moment of death.