Philip Roth: Everyman

It's highly likely that any novel beginning with the words "around the grave in the rundown cemetery" will keep death on its mind. It isn't a subtle opening for Philip Roth's slim novel Everyman, but it's an honest way to begin an account of one man's lifelong relationship with death, from a childhood illness that placed him in a hospital next to a dying boy to a burst appendix to the final, slow decline of old age. As the title (borrowed from a medieval masterpiece) suggests, it's a universal story, made even more so by its ultimate focus on the way we avoid dying and thinking about death, rather than the way we die.

It's also the story of a particular person, a nameless but familiarly Rothian hero whose life stretches from a boyhood helping out in his father's New Jersey jewelry store to a shoreline-retirement-community existence in the period following Sept. 11. Along the way, he collects more family than one man can handle. He leaves wives for lovers who become wives, then ex-wives; he never seems capable of dealing with the circumstances of his own existence when the potential for rosier prospects appears beyond the horizon. Roth doesn't flatter or condemn his protagonist; instead, he uses deep strains of sympathy to keep his humanity at the fore. When Roth's everyman embarks on a sexually adventurous, doomed affair with an unstable model, Roth captures both the indignity of a mid-life crisis, and the deep sense of need behind it.

Unlike his hero, Roth doesn't blink at the story's bleakness, but Everyman's typically fatalistic sense of dark humor makes it more than a wallow in darkness. In the end, it's a bit thin in ways beyond its page count, but it's still another example of Roth's exquisitely considered late-period prose. And it taps into enough eternal themes to earn its obvious echoes of King Lear, as well as the final sequence, which evokes Hamlet's graveside revelation that nothing in life unites us quite as thoroughly as the leaving of it.

More Book Review