The Life and Death of a Male Body

September 29, 2006 | ,

By Philip Roth
Houghton Mifflin. 182 pages. $24.

Half a century ago, when he was all of 21 years old, Philip Roth was already thinking seriously about death. In 1954, he published a short story called “The Day It Snowed,” about a small boy, Sydney, who is disturbed to discover that first his aunt, then his uncle, and finally his stepfather have all “disappeared.” So his mother tells him, at least, hoping to spare him grief; in each case, while the family heads to the cemetery, Sydney’s left home alone. Confused, the boy takes to the streets, hoping to locate the missing persons on his own, and before long he receives a brutal education as to the nature of mortality.

The story is no masterpiece—Roth, barely out of college, had not yet developed the uncanny confidence of Goodbye, Columbus—but already, in embryonic form, it enacts a central principle of the author’s mature work. In two dozen or so extraordinary novels he has written since, Roth has often employed much the same tactic: he has sought out innocence, uncovered naivety, and laid bare the truth, no matter how much it hurts.

In Everyman, his most recent novel, Roth applies this technique once more to the subject of death, with five decades of additional experience to enrich his perspective. In his seventies, Roth, like little Sydney, has been watching the people around him disappear: not aunts and uncles, in this case, but contemporaries. He told an interviewer that he started this new book the day after Saul Bellow’s funeral.

Fittingly, the novel begins with a grave, and through flashbacks relates one man’s journey to that grim destination. The plot turns not on the milestones of his life, but on the failures of health that bring him closer and closer to death: at age 9, a hernia operation; a burst appendix, and peritonitis, at 34; at 56, “severe occlusion of his major coronary arteries.” From then on, he is in and out of the hospital annually, until “eluding death seemed to have become the central business of his life and bodily decay his entire story.” “Should he ever write an autobiography,” the narrator muses, “he’d call it The Life and Death of a Male Body.”

Amid hospital props—stents and grafts, heplocks, heart-lung machines, IVs and EKGs—a rich portrait of the nameless protagonist surfaces, including glimpses of his marriages, adulteries, children, and career. He has found success as an advertising executive and taught painting as a retiree. He admires his wealthy and healthy older brother, and embraces fond memories of his parents. Though two sons, from his first marriage, never forgive his infidelity to their mother, the daughter from his second marriage, Nancy, continues to be loyal years after her parents’ divorce. Her love offers him some solace as he ages, growing lonely and bitter, but in general he pities those deteriorating senior citizens who take comfort in family ties, who “find sufficient grounds for existence in the existence of their grandchildren.”

Not willing to go on living for the sake of family, and certainly not for God—“Religion was a lie that he had recognized early in life, and he found all religions offensive, considered their superstitious folderol meaningless, childish”—the novel’s protagonist believes in one redemptive force: sex. He yearns for “that sharp sense of individualization, of sublime singularity, that marks a fresh sexual encounter or love affair,” and which, he says, is “the opposite of the deadening depersonalization of serious illness.” Committed throughout his life to the principle that sex is the one effective counter to the inevitability of death, he has been unfaithful to two wives, and unhappy with a third, a Danish model with whom he eventually realizes he shares nothing except a desire to carry “everything erotic between them to the limit.”

Sensual delights prove ephemeral, unfortunately, and even in the age of Viagra, he outlives his ability to procure and obtain pleasure from them. Beyond sex, what he finds himself dwelling upon—and what his brother invokes in a powerful eulogy—is their father’s business, Everyman’s Jewelry Store. Roth often conveys a rich sense of the workman’s pride so many American Jews once had as artisans and manual laborers; 1997’s Pulitzer-winning American Pastoral, for example, included an astonishing tour-de-force on the techniques and processes of glove-making. Everyman lovingly seizes on the jeweler’s practice.

Roth’s descriptions of labor are compelling as social history, but they double as motifs that complement his thematic interests. It is far from coincidental that, as the protagonist of Everyman’s body degrades and collapses—as the few joys of his life are shown to be, like his body, temporary—we are repeatedly reminded, through the narrator’s memories of his father, that diamonds are “imperishable.” It may not be a revelation, but Roth offers a worthwhile reminder that when we cherish diamonds according to the slogan that “A Diamond Is Forever,” we acknowledge implicitly that our bodies, on the contrary, are fragile, leaky, prone to disaster and decay.

Roth is not in the business of comforting his readers, and the vision of life articulated in Everyman is a sobering one at best. In his struggles with illness and his attempts to discover some meaning in his life, the protagonist of the book is—like the protagonist of the medieval morality play from which Roth took his title—an Everyman. But despite insisting on the universality of his condition, one of the novel’s most emphatic points is that though we all die, we all die differently, and fundamentally alone.

In Roth’s early story, “The Day It Snowed,” an old man meets Sydney on the street, and reveals to the young boy what his mother has refused to tell him: “To disappear is to die, Sydney.” More than fifty years later, Roth’s powerful, unflinching novel faces up to that statement’s frightening corollary. For Everyman—for a man whose faith in God is no longer viable and human relations are all too flawed—to die is to disappear. No more and no less. It’s not a joyful fact, but one that many of us must nonetheless confront.

[Originally published in The Jewish Literary Supplement.]