Everything is over for Simon Axler, the protagonist of Philip Roth’s startling new book. One of the leading American stage actors of his generation, now in his sixties, he has lost his magic, his talent, and his assurance. His Falstaff and Peer Gynt and Vanya, all his great roles, "are melted into air, into thin air." When he goes onstage he feels like a lunatic and looks like an idiot. His confidence in his powers has drained away; he imagines people laughing at him; he can no longer pretend to be someone else. "Something fundamental has vanished." His wife has gone, his audience has left him, his agent can’t persuade him to make a comeback.
Into this shattering account of inexplicable and terrifying self-evacuation bursts a counterplot of unusual erotic desire, a consolation for a bereft life so risky and aberrant that it points not toward comfort and gratification but to a yet darker and more shocking end. In this long day’s journey into night, told with Roth’s inimitable urgency, bravura, and gravity, all the ways that we convince ourselves of our solidity, all our life’s performances—talent, love, sex, hope, energy, reputation—are stripped off.
The Humbling is Roth’s thirtieth book.
A deteriorating and increasingly irrelevant actor finds the possibility of renewal in a younger woman in Roth's tight Chekhovian tragedy. At 65, Simon Axler, a formerly celebrated stage actor, is undergoing a crisis: he can no longer act, his wife leaves him and, suicidal, he checks himself into a psych ward. Then he retires to his upstate New York farm to wait for... something, which arrives in the form of Pegeen, daughter of some old theater friends who is now a "lithe, full-breasted woman of forty, though with something of a child still in her smile." A Rothian affair ensues, despite (or perhaps because of) their age difference and Pegeen's lesbian past. Axler overlooks all the signs that should warn him not to trust too much in the affair and instead tries out more and more sexual turns with Pegeen (spanking, strap-ons, role play), until one night they pick up a drunk local for a three-way that might prove to be soul-crushing. Roth observes much (about age, success and the sexual credit lovers hold one with another) in little space, and the svelte narrative amounts to an unsparing confrontation of self.