Death and decline have long been topics of concern for Philip Roth, and never more so than in recent years. Roth’s 2006 novel Everyman read like an moving, economical, aptly named treatment of final things, from creeping regret to the impossibility of predicting one’s final hour. The slim new novella The Humbling feels like the rude, less-considered B-side to that book, a stumbling trip toward the grave, with stops for dealing with personal and professional failure along the way. It’s an arresting, occasionally shocking book, but even with unmistakable moments of unblinking Rothian eloquence, it still feels a draft away from completion.
The humbling of the title comes to 66-year-old Simon Axler, an accomplished screen and stage actor who’s suddenly unable to perform. His Falstaff falters. His Macbeth falls apart. Abandoned by his wife and living alone in the country, he considers killing himself, but instead checks into a psychiatric hospital. Upon his exit, he begins an affair with Pegeen, a woman more than two decades his junior. It begins well, even though she’s long considered herself a lesbian, and the affair is her first with a man since her college days. But as the days turn into months and Simon and Pegeen start to consider the years ahead, the brightness of the future begins to cloud.
Much of The Humbling has the feel of a short story stretched too far, or a novel not stretched far enough. Characters drift into focus, then float away, which might seem like a comment on the protagonist’s actorly narcissism, if narcissism were his problem. Instead, he’s at war with time, trying to exact pleasures unbefitting a man of his age and fading contributions to the world, at least by the tortured logic that consumes him in the end. The punishment exacted on Simon feels unearned, if only because we never really get to know him. That isn’t due to an absence of graphic details on Roth’s part; the dildo-rich sex scenes read as if the author of Portnoy’s Complaint felt he still had something to prove. And it’s not for a lack of gripping exchanges; Roth still writes pages of two-hander dialogue as compelling in its own way as Elmore Leonard’s. It’s because, unlike Roth’s best, The Humbling never gets below the surface. Roth is as prolific as ever, and his own talents show no signs of fading. Consider this a mere misstep.