Philip Roth is the Barry Bonds of the contemporary highbrow novel. In the mid-nineties, at an age when most of his peers were declining into flabby-sentenced parodies of themselves, Roth pumped himself up on the steroids of wild indecorous honesty (in Sabbath’s Theater, the protagonist imagines his mother’s ghost emerging from his lover’s vagina) and launched an already hall-of-fame-worthy career into the Hemingway-Faulkner stratosphere. Since then, he seems to have won every major award twice. Now, two questions remain: Is the anomalous, age-defying surge over? (Many reviewers found his last novel, Everyman, disappointingly slight.) And will he ever win his standoff with the Nobel Prize committee, which apparently has trouble telling his wild indecorous honesty from plain old misogyny?
With Exit Ghost, the ninth (and apparently last) novel starring his alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, Roth guarantees that, if he does win the Nobel anytime soon, it’ll be on his own terms. Zuckerman has always been a swaggering, randy, impulsive taboo-hurdler, and here—despite being 71 years old, impotent, incontinent, and increasingly forgetful—he’s just as fierce and unbearable and sexually obsessed as ever. He gets lured off his mountain retreat in the Berkshires—where (like Roth) he’s locked himself away for years in a kind of existential quarantine—for the most mundane reason possible: (unsuccessful) penis surgery by a New York specialist. He’s immediately swept away on a big Rothian riptide of lust, rage, and envy. He ends up stuck in a hopeless sexual quest for a big-breasted 30-year-old short-story writer, and battling a strapping young intellectual over the legacy of his dead literary hero, and having an incestuous dream about his mother’s corpse. Zuckerman may be old, Roth wants us to know, but he’s not cute or doddering or detached or even wise: “I did what I did—that’s all one knows looking backward.”