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.
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:
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.