Sunday, September 14, 2008

Living and Dying

Philip Roth is arguably one of our best contemporary writers. He has written twenty seven books. Some of his latest books, “American Pastoral” and “The Plot Against America” are wonderful novels for which Mr. Roth has won numerous awards. So it was with great anticipation that I began reading “Everyman”, which was published in 2006. It is a short book, only 182 pages. As I read it I kept thinking, it will get better, something surprising or redeeming will happen. But it didn’t.

“Everyman” is the story of “everyman” and our protagonist is never named. Our “hero” grows up in Elizabeth, New Jersey the son of a successful and very reliable jeweler. He grows up and leads a very ordinary life. But extraordinary in that he has numerous health problems that plague him from the time he is nine years old until the day he dies. He is a successful commercial advertising artist, he marries young and has two sons. Not satisfied with this life he leaves his wife and sons for the love of his life and has a daughter. When he strays with a model he meets on an advertising shoot, he loses wife number two and ends up in sad marriage with a beautiful but self involved ninny. Our everyman learns that all this effort has led him to a life of isolation.

Along this path to loneliness and isolation our hero encounters health problems and intricate operations. The reader is treated to play by play descriptions of the numerous procedures as we watch our hero slowly disintegrate. After the 9/11 attacks he escapes to a “retirement village” at the Jersey Shore. He begins to paint in earnest and to give painting lessons to other seniors, but alas his health problems siege him : “The year after the insertion of the renal stent, he had surgery in his left carotid artery…….” Philip Roth portrays old age as a “total massacre”.

There are redeeming moments in this story when our hero expresses his love for his daughter by his second wife and laments the terrible relationship he has with his sons from his first marriage. He also helps a elderly woman in his painting class who is suffering from debilitating pain. The reader can almost like our hero as he visits the graveyard of his parents contemplating his own death with pathos. But the author pulls us back to reality as our hero undergoes yet another surgery that chronicles the end. Mr. Roth seems to be telling us the real meaning of life is that is has to end, and it may not be pleasant along the way.

We do know that Philip Roth knows how to write, but I’m not sure his philosophy of life and death constitute great reading material.

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