There's an adage that says, "dying is easy, comedy is hard." Well, Philip Roth just upended that assertion in a big way. In his latest novel, Everyman, death proves to very hard indeed. "Old age is not a battle," Roth writes. "Old age is a massacre."
Chipper as that sounds, Everyman is vintage Roth: full of passion, anger, and vivid details of lives well lived and profoundly screwed up. Roth's recent work has been devoted to historical epochs, and though he hasn't shied away from mortality issues, Everyman seems to be something of a departure as far as content goes. Yes, the narrative is firmly embedded in his native New Jersey. And yes, his signature storytelling trick of recounting a complicated life through a third person is in full effect. What's different is the focus is on death and dying above all else—history, culture, even the characters. Maybe this is why he doesn't even bother giving his protagonist a name.
Even if we don't know his name, we do know our main character is a career advertising man, one who was married with two sons and a daughter, had an affair, and then divorced. Then he did the same thing all over again, swapping a well-matched wife for a swimsuit model. In retrospect, there's a minimal amount of moral recrimination to all of this; now in his 70s with a daughter who loves him and two sons who curse his name, Roth's protagonist's convalescence is less golden than stark gray.
In one devastating scene, he tries flirting with a buxom, sports-bra clad jogger who, much to his surprise, flirts back. Of course, she doesn't do anything with the phone number he gives her, and the result is a lonely reminder of the gap between his ticking libido and socio-sexual reality.
Everyman doesn't brim with happy fun times. However, fans of serious fiction in general and Roth in particular know to look other forms of satisfaction. And there's no shortage of it here in scenes where loss and grief manifest in ways so specific you're forced to marvel at their rendering instead of their implications. Because doing so is like starting at the sun, or more accurately, gazing at the guest of honor at an open-casket funeral.