Staring at the sun

What was it Woody Allen said, “Death is easy; comedy is hard”? Well, Philip Roth just upended that assertion in a big way. In his latest novel, Everyman, death proves to be very hard indeed. It’s full of mixed feelings and regret, and for something so inevitable, the entire process still manages to arrive as a shock.

“Old age is not a battle,” Roth writes. “Old age is a massacre.”

Chipper as that sounds, Everyman is vintage Roth: Full of passion, anger and vivid details of lives well-lived and profoundly screwed up. Roth’s recent work has been devoted to historical epochs. The Human Stain lashed out simultaneously at political correctness in the Academy and sexual Puritanism in the Monica Lewinsky affair. Most recently, Roth’s widely well-received The Plot Against America toyed with the “what ifs” of Charles Lindbergh getting the Republican nomination and defeating Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Though Roth hasn’t shied away from mortality issues, Everyman is something of thematic departure. Yes, the narrative is firmly embedded in his native northern New Jersey. And yes, his now patented storytelling tricks, of recounting a complicated life through a third-person, rearview-mirror perspective, are in full effect. What’s different here is that the focus is on death and dying above all else—history, culture and even the characters themselves. Maybe this is why Roth doesn’t even bother giving his protagonist a name. This brief, dim and thoroughly intense novel recounts the walls closing in around a man so fast that it renders nomenclature irrelevant.

If we don’t know his name, we do know our main character has lived a life of ups and downs. A career advertising man, he married, had two sons, had an affair and then divorced. Then he did the same thing all over again, swapping a well-matched wife for a swimsuit model. (Haven’t we all?) In retrospect, there’s a minimal of moral recrimination in all of this. His affairs were what they were. Now, in his 70s with a daughter who loves him and two sons who curse his name, his convalescence is less golden than stark gray.

In one devastating scene, he tries flirting with a buxom, sports-bra-clad jogger who, much to his surprise, flirts back. Of course, she doesn’t do anything with the phone number he gives her, and the end result is a lonely reminder of the gap between his still-ticking libido and socio-sexual reality.

This is not his only piece of misfortune. His contemporaries—his fellow colleagues, his second wife and the widows at the assisted-living facility where he lives—are sick or dying off. Naturally, the mourning is not limited to the grief of others. Witness:

“The affection of the sons of his first marriage he no longer pursued; he had never done the right thing by their mother or by them, and to resist the repetitiveness of these accusations and his sons’ versions of family history would require a measure of combativeness that had vanished from his arsenal. The combativeness had been replaced by a huge sadness. If he yielded in the solitude of his long evenings to the temptation to call one or the other of them, he always felt saddened afterward, saddened and beaten.”

As you can see, Everyman doesn’t exactly brim with happy fun fun. However, fans of serious fiction in general and Roth in particular know to seek other forms of satisfaction. And there’s no shortage of it here in scenes where loss and grief manifest in ways so specific you’re forced to marvel at their rendering instead of their implications. Because doing so is like staring at the sun or, more accurately, gazing at the guest of honor at an open-casket funeral. Roth’s take on death suggests that a more pleasant alternative to the whole thing would be an instant-annihilation car wreck. After finishing this black book, the prospect seems downright twee. How’s that for a happy ending?