Books: Philip Roth’s Zuckerman has left the building

“Exit Ghost” by Philip Roth (Houghton Mifflin, $26).

Can one be a major writer, talented, famous, lionized and still be a fool?

The case for the prosecution is “Exit Ghost” by Philip Roth. Roth is a very gifted writer. His eye is keen, his descriptive powers as dazzling as the days of his scathing fiction about his New Jersey Jewish upbringing and community. Roth is still able to evoke pathos for his favorite subject, Philip Roth.

He even suggests self-awareness about the angry young artist he once was. In this book he writes of a young litterateur on the make: “Those grand grandstand days when you shrink from nothing and you’re only right. Everything is a target; you’re on the attack; and you, and you alone, are right.”

Ah yes, those days young people outgrow.

Well, some do. Roth, apparently, does not.

This book is blighted. Roth’s great subject reminds me of what Emerson said in his journal about Bronson Alcott: “He never quotes; he never refers; his only illustration is his own biography. His topic yesterday is Alcott on the 17th October; today, Alcott on 18th October.”

Roth’s subject is his body, more accurately, his genitalia. There was his youthful lust, his middle age lust and now we are unwilling voyeurs to his aged, unavailing lust. The reader can trace the distasteful peregrinations of Roth’s libido through a series of books designed to illuminate the modern condition. His subject is Zuckerman’s (Zuckerman is one of Roth’s fictional alter-egos) sexual status on 17th October. Tomorrow it will be Zuckerman’s sexual status on 18th October. Throw in some magnificent verbiage, a few political diatribes, include a young nubile woman always interested in him and usually married, and presto — the novel is cooked.

One thing we do not get in a Roth novel is moral reflection. Not on his own actions, at any rate. Adultery is a great subject in literature; without it we would eviscerate the western canon, from Tolstoy to Flaubert. But usually it entails some moral reflection. Adultery without angst is not literature, just license. In Roth, sexual conquest is an entitlement pure and simple. In this novel, incest and adultery are employed (the incest remains cloudy) for spice, and the great themes of art are reduced to prostates and prostrations. We suffer through considerable anatomically excruciating detail about the results of his prostate cancer; yet again, the degradation entails no elevation.

Does it read well? Apart from a multipage obituary of George Plimpton grafted onto the story that has nothing whatsoever to do with the book, yes, it does. Even better if you read the far more carefully crafted prequel, “The Ghost Writer.” E.I. Lonoff, the writer who serves as Zuckerman’s mentor, has real substance. His life, and the young student who desires him, recur in surprising ways in the new book. But Zuckerman’s barbaric yawps make it clear that he really has no interest in other characters except as they move him, irritate him, excite him, depress him.

In the chronicle of wasted time and wasted talent, could Roth not have cared for more than scabrous images and salacious dreams? “Exit Ghost” is a book about old age, a book in which old age has taught the author nothing. One of the consolations of age is said to be that the ego grows less overbearing. Roth remains unconsoled.

Philip Roth is a brilliant man and a major writer. When he turns his pen to portraying the world, or — as he did memorably in “The Counterlife” — to understanding the opacities of identity, the result is remarkable.

Oscar Wilde famously said, when confronted by a customs official, “I have nothing to declare but my genius.”

“Exit Ghost” is the work of someone who has nothing to declare but his concupiscence. We learned about that 40 years ago, in “Portnoy’s Complaint.” The intervening decades have diminished Roth’s capacity without increasing his wisdom.

David Wolpe is senior rabbi of Sinai Temple. His column on books will appear monthly in The Journal.