Everyman by Philip Roth

Philip Roth’s Everyman is about death, and little else, and is based on a grim medieval morality play in which an ordinary man is summoned by Death to appear before God’s judgment seat. So we’re not dealing with a summer beach book here. Nor is this the sprawling, large-canvas social/historical fiction we’ve come to expect from late-period Roth, as in justly celebrated books such as American Pastoral, The Human Stain, and The Plot Against America.

At fewer than 200 pages, Everyman is from a secondary, parallel strand of Roth’s career — the stylistically inventive novella. This is a form he has returned to periodically in books ranging from the youthfully exuberant Goodbye, Columbus to the self-consciously Kafkaesque The Breast. More recently, Deception was comprised exclusively of dialogue and The Dying Animal was a creepy, introspective meditation on sex and death. This latter book, which shares the same primary theme as Everyman, took its title from “Sailing to Byzantium” in which Yeats’ describes his soul as “sick with desire / and fastened to a dying animal.”

The length of a novella — either a long short story or a short novel, depending on your definition — is appropriate for the one-note theme (i.e., the inescapability of death) of Everyman. But it does not allow Roth to fully utilize his greatest gifts — namely, the ability to create a distinct first-person voice and place his characters’ personal dilemmas in a broader social context.

Oh, Everyman has many of the typical Roth ingredients — it involves Jews and sex and takes place largely in New York and New Jersey. It features hardworking immigrant parents and a rebellious young son who forges a different kind of life for himself. In other words, Everyman is of a piece with Roth’s oeuvre and yet somehow distinct and unique.

Everyman is a closely observed account of one man’s death. The protagonist is never named and we are to presume that Roth intends his story, as the title would suggest, to have a certain universality. We are almost, but not quite, in the realm of the fable or parable. Despite its short length and spare style, there is still a degree of detail and specificity not found in purely symbolic stories. For example, we learn a good deal about the retail jewelry business in working-class Elizabeth, New Jersey. The protagonist’s father says, “beyond the beauty and the status and the value, the diamond is imperishable. A piece of the earth that is imperishable, and a mere mortal is wearing it on her hand!” The imperishability of the diamond is nicely contrasted with the mortal flesh; the beauty of the gem with the disease, decay and death of the human animal.

The story, such as it is, can be described as a medical biography. We follow our Everyman from a minor hernia operation at the age of nine through a life-threatening bout of acute appendicitis in his 30s, a quintuple bypass at 56, and numerous surgeries in his later years to open clogged arteries.

Like many of Roth’s characters — from Nathan Zuckerman to David Kepesh to Mickey Sabbath — Everyman‘s anonymous protagonist uses sex as a form of rebellion against the inevitability of aging and death. He has been married and divorced three times, has had numerous mistresses, and even propositions, at age 71, an alluring 20-something jogger outside his retirement village. (Thankfully for the reader — and perhaps the protagonist, given his heart condition — she kindly rejects him.)

The Big Questions of God and religion loom large in this bleak tale. For Roth’s doomed Everyman, there is no comfort to be found in religion, no soothing hope of redemption or an afterlife:

“Religion was a lie that he had recognized early in life, and he found all religions offensive, considered their superstitious folderol meaningless, childish, couldn’t stand the complete unadultness — the baby talk and the righteousness and the sheep, the avid believers. No hocus-pocus about death and God or obsolete fantasies of heaven for him. There was only our bodies, born to live and die on terms decided by the bodies that had lived and died before us.”

This Everyman is a deeply flawed character; not only has he forsaken God, but he has abandoned at least one good wife, alienated two of his three children, and ignored his decent and loyal older brother. Not surprisingly, he dies alone on the operating table, without the comforts of either religion or earthly loved ones. Disdaining religion may provide the protagonist with a certain intellectual dignity, but it also deprives him of the inner peace available to those with spiritual certainties.

Perhaps that is what’s most frightening about this book — the distinct possibility that Everyman may be right. By viewing himself merely as a human animal, the protagonist allows himself to enjoy without guilt the temporal pleasures of the flesh and to consistently put his own happiness above that of others. But the price for this worldview is paid at the end of life, when the existential meaninglessness can become unbearable.

Despite the gravity of its theme and the solemnity of its tone, Everyman is a relatively minor work for Roth. Unlike, say, Henry James, Roth is not equally strong in all prose forms. He is a born novelist and the limitations of both the novella and the semi-parable keep him uncharacteristically tethered and constrained. Clearly his style in this book is a deliberate artistic choice — to match the prose with the form, theme and content of the fable-like story — but this reader misses the wonderful richness, the ferocity, and the manic energy of his best novels.

But Roth at something less than full power still soars above most every other living writer. The animal that is Philip Roth, who is 73, will die, too, eventually. For now, let us rejoice that he lives and writes and continues to astound us with one artistic triumph after another.