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Philip Roth's new novel is a candidly intimate yet universal story of loss, regret, and stoicism. The best-selling author of The Plot Against America now turns his attention from "one family's harrowing encounter with history" (New York Times) to one man's lifelong skirmish with mortality.
The fate of Roth's everyman is traced from his first shocking confrontation with death on the idyllic beaches of his childhood summers, through the family trials and professional achievements of his vigorous adulthood, and into his old age, when he is rended by observing the deterioration of his contemporaries and stalked by his own physical woes.
A successful commercial artist with a New York ad agency, he is the father of two sons from a first marriage who despise him and a daughter from a second marriage who adores him. He is the beloved brother of a good man whose physical well-being comes to arouse his bitter envy, and he is the lonely ex-husband of three very different women with whom he's made a mess of marriage. In the end he is a man who has become what he does not want to be.
The terrain of this powerful novel -- Roth's twenty-seventh book and the fifth to be published in the twenty-first century -- is the human body. Its subject is the common experience that terrifies us all.
Everyman takes its title from an anonymous fifteenth-century allegorical play, a classic of early English drama, whose theme is the summoning of the living to death.
Reviewed by Sara NelsonWhat is it about Philip Roth? He has published 27 books, almost all of which deal with the same topics Jewishness, Americanness, sex, aging, family and yet each is simultaneously familiar and new. His latest novel is a slim but dense volume about a sickly boy who grows up obsessed with his and everybody else's health, and eventually dies in his 70s, just as he always said he would. (I'm not giving anything away here; the story begins with the hero's funeral.) It might remind you of the old joke about the hypochondriac who ordered his tombstone to read: "I told you I was sick."And yet, despite its coy title, the book is both universal and very, very specific, and Roth watchers will not be able to stop themselves from comparing the hero to Roth himself. (In most of his books, whether written in the third person or the first, a main character is a tortured Jewish guy from Newark like Roth.) The unnamed hero here is a thrice-married adman, a father and a philanderer, a 70-something who spends his last days lamenting his lost prowess (physical and sexual), envying his healthy and beloved older brother, and refusing to apologize for his many years of bad behavior, although he palpably regrets them. Surely some wiseacre critic will note that he is Portnoy all grown up, an amalgamation of all the womanizing, sex- and death-obsessed characters Roth has written about (and been?) throughout his career.But to obsess about the parallels between author and character is to miss the point: like all of Roth's works, even the lesser ones, this is an artful yet surprisingly readable treatise on... well, on being human and struggling and aging at the beginning of the new century. It also borrows devices from his previous works there's a sequence about a gravedigger that's reminiscent of the glove-making passages in American Pastoral, and many observations will remind careful readers of both Patrimony and The Dying Animal and through it all, there's that Rothian voice: pained, angry, arrogant and deeply, wryly funny. Nothing escapes him, not even his own self-seriousness. "Amateurs look for inspiration; the rest of us just get up and go to work," he has his adman-turned-art-teacher opine about an annoying student. Obviously, Roth himself is a professional.Sara Nelson is editor-in-chief of PW.