Books You Really Should’ve Read By Now No #8,684,599: Everyman by Philip Roth

Like a number of Philip Roth’s recent novels, Everyman begins, Citizen Kane-like, at the end. In the case of Everyman, the end really is the end: the end of the person whose tale (or at least a part of whose tale) the book looks to tell. Roth’s everyman is buried with his family about him, eulogised by his beloved daughter Nancy and his unfairly put-upon brother Howie, we glimpse, briefly, the boyhood (in Elizabeth, raised among watch cogs and precious gems) and the man our Everyman was / became.

Like Alphonse Daudet’s In the Land of Pain, Roth’s Everyman is a diary of pain, in a way, a study of the steps medical science can now take to prolong life and a roll-call, if you will, of what can be done to keep a man breathing in and out each and every day. From the funeral, we retreat to the night before the surgery that killed him (where he thinks about all of the people who were there waiting for him when he awaoke from previous surgical experiences, and especially of the useless wife who was on hand to make the recovery from his quintuple bypass surgery all the more difficult). He compares his current predicament with an operation, his first operation, a lifetime ago, in 1942, a hernia operation (which in turn leads to subsequent recollections of death, a drowned and bloated body on the beach, a boy in the next bed to him who may have been moved to a different ward but more than likely died). His next operation requires the removal of his appendix (by which time he is married, for the second time, to Phoebe, having left his first wife Cecilia for a ‘vile little Quaker slut’) and an extended period of recuperation as a result of peritonitis.

After which there is a twenty-two year intermission (‘Twenty-two years of excellent health and the boundless self-assurance that flows from being fit’). But never forget the epigram that informs the book (a fragment from Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ that sees ‘men sit and hear each other groan; Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last grey hairs, / Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies; / Where but to think is to be full of sorrow…’) and don’t forget that this is a book that comes sandwiched between two funereal black covers the title of which is taken from a fifteenth century allegorical drama whose theme is the summoning of the living to death.

Intermission over, we plunge into a rather gruesome cardiovascular operation that takes in the adultery that ended his marriage to Phoebe (one day somebody will write a long and interesting read about Mr Roth’s obsession with adultery) and the death of his father, as well as hideous scars across his chest and his groin (where a vein is all but removed to provide skin grafts for his heart). Next up we have a renal artery angioplasty (which sounds like something Samuel Beckett would have loved to conjur with) and 9/11, which drives our narrator out of New York and out to the shore, to a retirement community called Starfish Beach. A year passes and he requires surgery to the left carotid artery for a major obstruction. (This is particularly gruesome. A reading experience through clenched fingers if ever there was one.) After which, ‘not a year went by when he wasn’t hospitalized’.

Everyman trudges painfully to its close with the shadow of the reaper tall in the window. It’s faultless in terms of its execution (Roth can justifiably lay claim to the title of greatest living author), but for all that it isn’t entirely an enjoyable read because what you have here is an enormously talented writer saying, look: here is death, look at it, stare it in the face, it will have you too, this is merely a glimpse of what is in store for you … And, like most people, I like to spend the better part of my days with my head ostrich-like in the sand. Still and all, his twenty-seventh novel continues the trend of late flowering masterpieces began with Sabbath’s Theater over a decade ago. It may not cheer you up and leave you with a spring in your step but it does add another considerable piece of writing to Roth’s already mighty canon.

Any Cop?: The man can do no wrong.


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