Philip Roth's last novel, Everyman, chronicled a man's descent into death after a life that taught him very little. His new one is far sunnier: It's about another man's descent into a state in which everything he knows about his limitations is painfully reconfirmed through a spate of poor judgment.

Exit Ghost, the last great hurrah of Roth's famous alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, begs the question: "Can we please get this otherwise amazing novelist off his death trip?" Yes, dark explorations yield profound insights, and they're arguably inevitable for any serious artist, but lately Roth seems content to pick at the scabs of his own mortality.

The short of Exit Ghost is this: Nathan Zuckerman, having forsworn the life of a famous writer, accidentally emerges from his decade of self-imposed exile in western Massachusetts. Zuckerman sought safety in the countryside during the 1990s, aiming to wipe out all distractions from his literary work: no wife, no kids—just work. Zuckerman may be a man of letters, but he's now a man of diapers as well. Left incontinent and impotent by prostrate surgery, he returns to Manhattan to see an urologist who, he's assured, can restore him to his previous state.

So intoxicating is this specter of hope that it opens up the door to all sorts of abandoned yearnings—like an affair with a beautiful, decidedly unavailable woman. A significant portion of the novel is written in the form of a play, imagined dialogue between Zuckerman and Jamie, the 30-year-old woman whose Upper West Side apartment he contemplates swapping for his Massachusetts home for one year.

Ultimately, Zuckerman proves incapable of living out his days as an anchorite of letters. He knows too well that his foray into the world is doomed to failure, and so it fails. Prostate be damned, he beats a path back to the Berkshires and the artificial barriers he erected 11 years ago.

Zuckerman was once Roth's sounding board for entertaining, if indulgent, ideas about a writer and his work. The character proved much more useful as a narrative conduit for the likes of characters like Coleman Silk in The Human Stain or Swede Levov in American Pastoral. So it's sad to bid the alter ego farewell, but it's good riddance to his graying anxiety. Zuckerman (and Roth) are at their best when looking backward.