Die-hard fans of Philip Roth’s Zuckerman series—the randy, highbrow hordes who storm bookstores for midnight-release parties dressed in Zuckerman’s signature turtleneck and loafers—should prepare to be heartbroken. In Exit Ghost, the series finale, Roth kills off everyone’s favorite character: the upstanding hero of his entire oeuvre, divining rod of his fictional vision, gushing fountainhead of the famous vitality, pulsing column of strength at the center of his books’ elaborate architecture, perpetually pumping piston of his ever-thrusting narrative engine—the main vein, if you will, of the author’s fully engorged imagination. But before I get myself blocked by your spam filter, let me just whip it out: Zuckerman’s mighty penis, conqueror of professional ballerinas and Hollywood beauties, is dead. After 71 years, literature’s most venerable tube steak has been reduced to “a spigot of wrinkled flesh.” The shaft has been given the shaft. There had of course been hints that this was coming—we knew he’d had prostate surgery—but nothing so vividly final as this:
The once rigid instrument of procreation was now like the end of a pipe you see sticking out of a field somewhere, a meaningless piece of pipe that spurts and gushes intermittently, spitting forth water to no end, until a day arrives when somebody remembers to give the valve the extra turn that shuts the damn sluice down.
For Zuckerman, Roth’s (hardly) alter(ed) ego, this is not just another trivial by-product of aging; it’s like Odysseus losing his wit, Achilles losing his shield, Quixote losing his Sancho. At the beginning of the now-venerable nine-book series, Zuckerman founded his entire literary career on phallocentrism. He revised Isaac Babel’s lovely definition of the Jewish writer—“a man with autumn in his heart and spectacles on his nose”—to include “and blood in his penis,” thus demolishing one of realism’s peskiest obstacles: the age-old tenet (was it Aristotle?) forbidding protagonists from having sex with a piece of raw liver. Zuckerman (and Roth) subsequently schwinged to superfame and literary greatness. As Harold Bloom put it recently, in the most unnecessarily qualified line of praise ever: “I’m not sure if Philip isn’t the closest we have to being the best there is.”
Zuckerman is now 71 (Roth is 74). The autumn in his heart has turned to winter, the spectacles on his nose have become trifocals, and the infamous blood has, alas, drained away. Now that the central pillar of Zuckerman’s literary revolution has wilted like an old celery stalk, what is left? What are we still reading for?
The Zuckerman series is not a series in the sense that Star Wars, or Harry Potter, or even Updike’s Rabbit books, are series. It is looser and weirder, as striking for its disunity as its unity—a design that reflects Roth’s career-long obsession with the unruliness of human life. The novels have arrived, over the course of 28 years, in irregular clusters: an opening quartet (1979–1985) that dramatized the out-of-control celeb-spiral of Roth’s own early career; a stand-alone metafiction that seemed to end the series (1987’s The Counterlife); then, beginning ten years later, a suddenly un-solipsistic trilogy (American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, The Human Stain) in which Zuckerman paradoxically rediscovered the outside world and its people by becoming a recluse and pondering Big American Themes (terrorism, McCarthyism, racism). What kind of book could possibly end such an odd, wide-ranging, non-serial “series”?
With Exit Ghost, Roth is obviously aiming for closure. He has bound the new novel closely, in both title and plot, to The Ghost Writer, the firecracker of a novella that opened the series. In that book, 23-year-old Zuckerman is (as Roth was at 23) a precocious writer of controversial short stories on the brink of breakout success. In a quest for “patriarchal validation,” he visits one of his heroes—the reclusive short-story writer E. I. Lonoff, “the most famous literary ascetic in America”—and this brief visit (just under 24 hours, just over 100 pages) turns into a master class on the steep human cost of literary greatness: Lonoff is a slave to dull and solitary routine, the recipient of endless inane hate mail, and the chief culprit of a dysfunctional marriage—which dissolves, at the hands of Lonoff’s mysteriously beautiful ex-student, in front of Zuckerman’s eyes.
In Exit Ghost, everything has come full circle. Lonoff is dead and out of print. Septuagenarian Zuckerman, having fled New York eleven years earlier after his inane hate mail began to be spiced with murder threats, is now (again, like the actual Roth) the most famous literary ascetic in America, even inhabiting Lonoff’s old mountain in the Berkshires. Warily, he allows himself to be lured back to civilization for the most mundane reason possible: bladder surgery. (Roth describes the procedure in a sentence so unpoetic it’s poetry: “a catheter inserted in the urethra to inject a gelatinous form of collagen where the neck of the bladder meets the urethra.”) But as soon as Zuckerman’s orthopedic shoes hit the Manhattan pavement, he gets sucked back into the city’s temptations on a big Rothian riptide of lust, rage, and envy. Although he’s impotent, addicted to solitude, incontinent, and losing his memory, he becomes hopelessly infatuated with a big-breasted, married 30-year-old short-story writer, then battles a strapping young intellectual who plans to write a scandalous biography of Lonoff, then runs into Lonoff’s ex-student and lover, now also elderly and dying of brain cancer.
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.
SEE ALSO: The (Near Complete) Roth Reader
By Philip Roth. Houghton Mifflin. 292 pages. $26.