May 10, 2006
Starkly packaged in a black cover, white letters proclaiming title and author, Everyman is arguably one of Philip Roth's most moving, elegiac dilations on the dying animal (the name of another short Roth novel). Though readers may remember from college days The Summoning of Everyman, an anonymous late-15th century morality play that will surely be referenced in reviews of Roth's remarkable book, Roth's Everyman also calls to mind Tolstoy, Wordsworth and the last act of Hamlet, all of which hauntingly invoke the coming of death.
Roth's epigraph, from Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale" is much to the point: "Here, where men sit and hear each other groan; / Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last grey hairs, / Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies; / Where but to think is to be full of sorrow." Except . . .
Roth being Roth, add humor, sex, guilt, New Jersey and a Jewish American family. These staples of previous Roth books inform the dialogue and ruminations of Everyman, which begins in a "rundown cemetery" and then moves back in time, into the deceased's past. Such is the author's skill that the narrative of family members at graveside, particularly Howie, the older brother of the dead man (who remains unnamed, nice touch), imperceptibly shifts to the deceased. The reader tends to forget that death has already occurred, smiting Everyman's heart, as it did in the medieval allegory. But Roth being Roth, death also comes with irony.
Only days before he dies, Everyman performed a charitable act in the cemetery where his parents are buried (good deeds prove the only worthy companion in the medieval allegory), and found himself suddenly longing "for everyone to be living" and "to have it all all over again." The next scene, at the hospital where he is about to undergo surgery, Everyman feels "anything but doomed." His thoughts wander and he finally yields to the "vitality of the boy he once was" — and then he dies. The paragraph contains some of the most achingly beautiful, exquisite prose Roth has ever written.
Of course, Everyman is no more every man than he is Philip Roth, though he shares the author's age, childhood geography (Elizabeth, Newark, the Jersey Shore), illness and some familial facts (Roth watchers know, for example, that Roth's older brother, Sandy, was, like Everyman, an advertising artist). The trade lore this time has to do with jewelry and clocks. Everyman's father built up a successful business called Everyman's Jewelry Store. Diamonds are "imperishable" but time flies away.
Everyman has been married three times and has had mistresses. His two sons from his first marriage who despise him show up at the funeral: one, "overcome with a feeling for his father that wasn't antagonism but that his antagonism denied him the means to release." A daughter, from his second marriage, whom Everyman adores, becomes his hope, after sex, friends, health, and career fall away. When he gave up a sideline retirement job teaching painting, he tells her that he had "an irreversible aesthetic vasectomy." In truth, he cannot overcome the fact that "eluding death seemed to have become the central business of his life and bodily decay his entire story."
He has chosen to live by himself, knowing that "the worst of being unbearably alone was that you had to bear it . . . you had to work hard to prevent your mind from sabotaging you by its looking hungrily back at the superabundant past." But Everyman does look back, regretting marital folly and envying Howie, older, wealthy, physically and psychologically fit, and concludes that that old age isn't a battle but a massacre, a "malaise" of age conspiring with illness.
Roth's ear is as superb as ever in this new book, as is his genius for evoking not only the feeling of immortality in youth but its opposite as well — anxiety on first seeing a dead body, on being hospitalized, on sensing the power, and the indifference, of the majestic natural world. In order to save his soul, medieval Everyman must reject the world. Roth's Everyman cannot let it go. As an anesthesia haze envelops him, he remembers the long-ago bliss of being young and alive, the "ecstasy of a whole day of being battered silly by the sea, the taste and the smell intoxicated him so that he was driven to the brink of biting down with his teeth to tear out a chunk of himself and savor his fleshly existence." It is then, at the height of his joy in remembering that he ceases to be.
Everyman by Philip Roth, Houghton Mifflin, 182 pp., $24.