In Exit Ghost, Philip Roth’s ninth “Zuckerman” novel, Nathan Zuckerman tells a would-be biographer of the great, though purely fictional, American short-story writer E.I. Lonoff that “the dirt-seeking snooping calling itself research is just about the lowest of literary rackets.”
This is a not-unreasonable charge, given that the biography’s big revelation is going to be a sexual relationship the teenaged Lonoff supposedly had with his half-sister that is only marginally supported by the evidence. Zuckerman, who has only the slightest personal stake in the matter—he spent a single evening back in 1956 with Lonoff, his soon-to-be-ex-wife, and a worshipful student—tells the biographer, “I’m going to do everything I can to sabotage you,” upon which the frustrated biographer excoriates Zuckerman: “You’re dying, old man, you’ll soon be dead! You smell of decay! You smell like death!”
The biographer is right. Zuckerman, who narrates this novel, does indeed reek of the grave. Surgery for prostate cancer has rendered him not only incontinent but sexually incapable, and he has spent the past 11 years as a near-hermit in the Berkshires, “in a small house on a dirt road in the deep country,” chased there by a series of death threats. A trip to New York for a medical procedure to cure his incontinence though not his impotence casts into deeper relief just how far beyond the pale the 70-something Zuckerman has drifted. He can’t get over how everyone on the street natters continually into their cellphones, and knows next to nothing about current politics and popular culture. He doesn’t—and this is the novel’s single least-believable detail—even know who Tom Cruise is.
And yet Zuckerman is right, too. The biographer—most likely a stand-in for every literary critic who has ever wasted precious column inches wondering to what extent the garrulous, priapic and obsessive Jewish-American novelist Nathan Zuckerman resembles the “real” Philip Roth, as if a final answer to that question could be determined, or could possibly matter—comes across as a bullying fool who’s decided that the way to restore the largely forgotten Lonoff’s literary reputation is by sullying his personal reputation.
In the war between the biographer and Zuckerman, the latter is aided by a familiar figure from Roth’s earlier novella The Ghost Writer, Amy Bellette, the young student whom Zuckerman met on the evening he spent with Lonoff, and who later becomes Lonoff’s consort, nurse in his dying days, and literary executor. Back then, she had been a pretty young thing whom Zuckerman fantasized was the actual, grown-up Anne Frank, somehow escaped from the Nazi death camps. Now, she’s a ruined thing, a brain cancer victim determined in her more cogent moments to prevent her late lover from being reanimated by scandal.
Zuckerman encounters the biographer only because, on this one trip to New York in 11 years, he impulsively answers a personal ad in the New York Review of Books from a young married couple looking to swap their Upper West Side apartment for a New England retreat for a year. Zuckerman goes to meet with the owners of the apartment and precipitously decides to slip back into the thrilling profusion of New York City.
Faithful readers of Roth will not be surprised to learn that the female half of the couple, Jamie, is a lovely young aspiring writer who has beautiful breasts and a beautiful mind, nor that Zuckerman’s decrepitude does not prevent him from falling deeply and hopelessly in lust with her. The (not incidentally young, handsome and strapping) biographer was her college boyfriend, which is how the connection is made; Zuckerman’s dislike of him, then, is deeply colored by sexual envy. The young writer’s husband is a nice guy, and thus rendered colorlessly by Zuckerman, but, once again, he cannot imagine what this fetching woman is doing with him instead of, well, Zuckerman.
Zuckerman works through this metastasizing envy by scribbling a series of rather masturbatory dialogues with Jamie that end inevitably with her agreeing to meet him in his hotel room. It’s all a bit pathetic, considering Zuckerman’s condition, and yet the very implausibility of his fantasies is also touchingly hopeful. There’s lust in the old boy yet.
There’s plenty of lust for life still left in Roth himself, and though this novel doesn’t contain any of the jaw-droppingly audacious embarrassments of some of his funniest and most sexual novels, such as Portnoy’s Complaint or Sabbath’s Theatre, nor the stirring profundity of his greatest work, the tragic American Pastoral, it nevertheless is a worthy minor effort.
Roth’s prose is still vigorous, if a bit more clotted in certain passages than his brilliant early writing. His dialogue is as didactic and declamatory as ever, but that’s just Roth’s style. You either like the way his characters hector each other and the reader or you don’t. And his worldview, though easy enough to criticize, is fearlessly honest; no one can complain that Phillip Roth, of all authors, is politically correct, or that he pretends to be something other than his highly sexualized, readily outraged, and coruscatingly intelligent self.
Exit Ghost presumably serves as a valedictory for the character of Nathan Zuckerman. But, bearing in mind that Zuckerman and his creator are two separate entities, one can hope for a great many more books from Philip Roth, who would appear on the basis of this one to be still very much in the game.
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