Death Becomes Him

Photo: Eilot Elisofon/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

The last few years have been oppressive ones for fans of Philip Roth. Once a libidinous bad boy—a shonda for the Jews, a tonic for literature—he has been elevated to something of a secular saint, praised and overpraised, for his trio of fat books (American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, The Human Stain) on worldly topics (terrorism, McCarthyism, race). So it’s a relief to open Everyman, which at 192 pages feels like an attempt at something else entirely: a small-scale universality. If it fails in that task, it succeeds in almost every other way.

Everyman takes its title from a medieval morality play, a nasty little allegory of what happens when the party ends. Called by Death, the central character is abandoned by his “false friends”—friends, family, wealth—and leans instead on Good Deeds, Strength, Beauty, Intelligence, and Knowledge. By play’s end, he is alone: All but Good Deeds have left him, and he must confront his grave with Christian humility. The world he has left behind is “drowned in synne,” as God complains in the play’s prologue, overflowing with “pryde coueteyse wrathe and lechery.”

Pride, covetousness, wrath, and lechery are, of course, Roth’s specialty. And he supplies servings of each here, turning modern twists on Everyman’s search for meaning. Most noticeably, in Roth’s account, Everyman is not so much deserted as he is deserter—he abandons his first wife and their resentful sons, then cheats on his second wife and loving daughter. He pulls away from his brother, envious of his health. Only the forgiving child of his second marriage, Nancy, sticks by him.

As for humility, that was never Roth’s strong suit. The book opens with the protagonist’s funeral, and early on, we are told that our central figure is “reasonable and kindly, an amicable, moderate, industrious man,” a “square” who took on a moneymaking career to support his family. But this attempt to distinguish author from character dissolves quickly. By the book’s end, our protagonist has morphed into an anti-hero who more strongly resembles Everyroth: a cynical, secular Jewish prick with working-class pride, a yen for shiksas, and a terror that his seductive forces are fading. Like Portnoy and Roth’s other avatars, he is—to put it in the positive sense—the man of appetite; a charming pig, cheating on his wives because the heart wants, etc. And an artist, of course: in this case, a gifted painter who made his fortune in advertising.

To a more critical eye, Everyroth may appear something very different: a metronome of self-pity and pique. His signature trait is defensiveness. “You wicked bastards! You sulky fuckers! You condemning little shits,” he raves about the adult sons who will not absolve him for cheating on their mother. These rants can be wearying reminders of The Human Stain, a flawed book that returned obsessively to the questionable notion that elderly lechers are victims of a cruel world. The Human Stain was notable for the narrator’s unlikely lover, an absurd concatenation of all the Rothian motifs—illiterate (but secretly not!), poor (but secretly not!), a goyishe exotic with occult sexual skills. Everyman has a similar fascination with sex on the sneak (and its own healing shiksas, including a salty Irish nurse), but it takes a more nuanced approach to its hero’s wrecking-ball libido—this is, after all, meant as a final accounting.

Besides, Roth’s primary concern here is not sex but death—death as the event that blots out individuality more than any orgasm ever could. In Everyman’s memories, life itself narrows to a series of near escapes. As a 9-year-old about to be operated on for a hernia, Everyman sees the surgeon for the first time “wearing a surgical gown and a white mask that changed everything about him—he might not even have been Dr. Smith” but rather “someone who had just wandered into the operating room and picked up a knife.” At his father’s funeral, the dirt hitting the coffin makes “the sound that is absorbed into one’s being like no other.” Watching family and friends tilt one by one toward the grave, he is forced to confront the horrible truth: “Old age isn’t a battle; old age is a massacre.”

And, step by step, his own body begins to come apart. His appendix bursts; he has one heart operation, then another. He suffers through a terrifying procedure without general anesthesia: “It was a mistake, a barely endurable mistake, because the operation lasted two hours and his head was claustrophobically draped with a cloth, and the cutting and scraping took place so close to his ear, he could hear every move their instruments made as though he were inside an echo chamber.” With bitter precision, Roth captures the way such catastrophes reduce us all to the dependence of childhood: the search for good news in a doctor’s voice, the struggle to learn medical jargon like a new language.

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.

By Philip Roth. Houghton Mifflin. 192 Pages.

Death Becomes Him