Eluding Death Gives Life to Roth Novel

Eluding death is the central issue of life for Philip Roth’s nameless leading character in his newest novel, “Everyman” (Houghton Mifflin). A thrice-married and divorced retired advertising executive, Roth’s lonely everyman wants to keep on with the messy business of his life — “he didn’t want the end to come a minute earlier than it had to” — even as friends get sick and die around him, and his own body’s failings persist.

“Old age,” Roth writes, “isn’t a battle, it’s a massacre.”

Roth, 73, who has won every major American literary prize for his 26 previous books, began writing this short novel, or novella, the day after his friend, Saul Bellow, was buried. The book opens at a graveside service in a New Jersey cemetery, as the man referred to only as “he” — the other characters are named — is laid to rest, described by an all-seeing narrator who then loops the reader through the cycle of the man’s life through his catalog of ailments and relationships.

While his last novel, “The Plot Against America” (Houghton Mifflin, 2004) reached into America’s past, this book is a personal and contemporary story, the events of Sept. 11 a shadow. With paragraphs that sometimes run over several pages of the small-format book, the novel’s sentences are at once haunting and dazzling and sometimes funny, too, for the pointed Roth details.

The title is drawn from the name of a line of anonymous 15th-century English allegorical plays that were performed in cemeteries — the theme was always salvation. In one classic morality play, Everyman, the main character, gets a visit from death and says what Roth considers the first great line in English drama: “Oh, Death, thou comest when I had thee least in mind.”

Death, loss, regret, sex and Jews are familiar Roth themes, and this Everyman at times sounds like other Roth characters, at times like the author himself. In the novel, he left his difficult first wife, the mother of his two sons, for a kindly second wife, the mother of his daughter, Nancy. While in his 50s, he is thrown out by his second wife, after she confronts him about an affair — not his first — with a 24-year-old Danish model. The model becomes his third wife, but that marriage doesn’t last either.

Throughout his life, he loves and admires his older brother, Howie, always the effortlessly successful athlete and businessman, but as he requires repeated major surgery, he begins to resent his brother’s good health.

He’s bitterly disappointed with his sons, “who continued to act as if what happened to them had never happened before or since to anyone else.” His daughter is a spectacularly good person, and he felt it was a miracle and his good fortune, rather than a result of anything he had done, that she turned out as she did. He muses that “sometimes it seemed that everything was a mistake, except for Nancy.”

Some weeks after the events of Sept. 11, he moves from Manhattan to Starfish Beach, a retirement village on the Jersey shore, not far from the town where his family had vacationed when he was growing up. He loves the ocean, “the stupendous sea that had been changing continuously without ever changing since he’d been a bony, sea-battling boy.”

His plan is to take up painting, which he had abandoned to begin his advertising career. He paints and gives classes, but soon after one of his more serious students, a widow crippled by pain, commits suicide, he gives up painting again. He takes little interest in the women of his village, but he walks the boardwalk, longing for the young women runners and bathers, ever aware of his weakened powers. Toward the end — although he doesn’t expect his own life to end — he reaches out to old friends and colleagues who are also experiencing loss and suffering.

The most evocative scenes are those in which his father’s Elizabeth, N.J., jewelry store is conjured up. The brothers worked there, alongside local Irish Catholic girls hired for their good manners and for their ability — as their father imagined — to make their non-Jewish customers feel comfortable. They were also there to look good when they tried on jewelry for potential buyers.

For the boys, the store was an Eden created by their father, “a paradise just 15 feet wide by 40 feet deep disguised as an old jewelry store.” In one of his episodes on the cardiac operating table, in an attempt to keep his mind elsewhere, he recites in alphabetical order the nine brands of watches and seven brands of clocks sold in the shop.

In rare interviews and public appearances, Roth repeatedly says the question of being a Jewish writer, or for that matter, being a Jewish man, does not interest him. When a Danish journalist recently asked if he was religious, he replied that he was the opposite of religious; that he’s anti-religious and disdainful of religious people, also a subject in which he finds little interest.

His character says that he stopped taking Judaism seriously the day after his bar mitzvah and hadn’t been in a synagogue since. In the many hospitals he’d been in, he would leave the line for religion blank on admission forms, trying to avoid the possibility of a rabbi stopping by to visit him. For him, “Religion was a lie that he had recognized early in life, and he found all religions offensive, considered their superstitious folderol meaningless, childish, couldn’t stand the complete unadultness — the baby talk and the righteousness and the sheep, the avid believers. No hocus-pocus about death and God or obsolete fantasies of heaven for him.”

Yet the questions about Judaism always come up, because Roth’s books are filled with Jews. Here, Everyman is buried according to Jewish tradition, as were his parents, in a near-crumbling Jewish cemetery built by Jewish benevolent societies more than a century earlier. His grandfather, who ran a boarding house for immigrants, was one of the founders who landscaped the open field with their own hands. Now, the once carefully groomed burial ground, just off the more recently built New Jersey Turnpike and abutting Newark Airport, is largely overgrown and vandalized. At the funeral, Nancy, who brings everyone together, remarks that they might have set her father to rest in a more beautiful setting, but she wanted him close by his parents and grandparents, rather than alone.

In the scene before he goes into the operating room the final time, he is at the cemetery, visiting the graves of his parents. He stops and engages a gravedigger in a long conversation about the details of his 34 years of digging graves at this cemetery. Working by hand with two standard shovels, square and round, he digs down six feet and forms an area flat enough “to lay a bed out on … it’s got to be right for the sake of the family and right for the sake of the dead.”

When he realizes that this man dug his parents’ graves, he slips him some money, grateful for his care and consideration. And he realizes that this is the man who might sometime soon be digging a 6-foot hole for him. In all this, Everyman seems to find comfort.

Standing next to his parents’ tombstones, he feels an intensity of connection. He says aloud to them — his mother died at 80, his father at 90 — that their boy is 71. His mother replies, “Good. You lived.” His father tells him, “Look back and atone for what you can atone for, and make the best of what you have left.”

He lingers, unable to leave. “The tenderness was out of control. As was the longing for everyone to be living. And to have it all over again.”