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Everyman

by Philip Roth

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Everyman
"Old age isn't a battle; old age is a massacre."

In the fifties, when pop-intellectualism was at its height, there was a series of records called "The Heart of the Symphony," a kind of K-Tel's greatest hits of Beethoven, Mozart and Bach with just the catchy bits, the dull stuff cut out. Philip Roth's Everyman has a similar intoxicating compactness to it, a man's life distilled to the worst of times. Nothing but regret, death, illness, loneliness and yet more regret, this taut novel is a bummer of the highest degree. That the novel is not subtitled "A Cautionary Tale" seems to be an editorial mistake.

A bitter musing on "The Life and Death of a Male Body," - the title of a never-writ autobiography of the unnamed protagonist - Roth reaches for a universality with the terror of growing old and losing the potency of youth. And, to a large degree, he achieves it, in that singular way that Roth does, flattering himself - and by extension, flattering his male readers - in creating a hero undone by degrees, but virile to the last.
Everyman is simple in structure, opening at the hero's funeral and then, starting from his youth, delineating each health and marital crisis until he is found "entering into nowhere without even knowing it." Loss in all of its disappointing forms is the sole subject of the novel. From the outset, we see the protagonist playing with broken watches at his father's jewelry shop while his hale and hearty brother busies himself with the jewels and the ladies. When he tried to fix the watches "generally he only made them worse." This foreshadowing is borne out as his heart provides him a decade and a half of prolonged difficulty, eventually being carried out into the void, as there was "no hocus-pocus about death and God or obsolete fantasies of heaven for him."
This utter lack of hope and absolute lack of meaning is frankly difficult to take. Roth presents happiness as not a blessing, or even the reward of good living, but rather as a rare cosmic accident. Our hero ultimately hates his successful brother, not for his impressive material gains, but for his good health. The surprise, then, is that Roth takes such a bluntly unlikable character and makes the reader feel for him for the fact that his body is failing him for no discernable reason.

Despite the depressing tone, Roth sprinkles moments of ecstasy in the book, carrying the reader through. He takes moments of carnal pleasure and describes them with a lean muscularity that is both exhilarating and a little offensive, as in all of his novels. In Everyman, Roth seems to posit that all that we are doing in our slow shuffle off this mortal coil is yearning for our own youth:
...was the best of old age just that - the longing for the best of boyhood? … the ecstasy of a whole day of being battered silly by the sea, the taste and smell intoxicated him so that he was driven to the brink of biting down with his teeth to tear a chunk of himself and savor his fleshly existence.

The temple of the flesh is presented as the one holy thing in the world, providing us with the only moments of transcendence and every failure leading up to and including the only true universal human quality of death. Roth's considerable gifts sometimes renders this truth in such exquisite beauty that one is scarcely bothered at the time.
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.
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