Roth Does a Dance With Death, Gloomy, Honest, Uncompromising

Everyman, the late-15th-century morality play, teaches a grim lesson. Summoned by Death to “take a long journey,” Everyman finds that his friends and family quickly desert him, that riches are worthless, that even his best qualities won’t protect him:

O all thing faileth save God alone—

Beauty, Strength, and Discretion.

For when Death bloweth his blast

They all run fro me full fast.

And yet Everyman is not entirely abandoned in extremis. He has one ally, Good Deeds, who not only remains by his side but actually descends with him into the grave.

Fast-forward 500 years, and even that glimmer of hope is gone. God is wholly absent—He, too, faileth—and virtue is no reward at all.

Philip Roth’s 21st-century Everyman faces death alone, uncomforted: “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.” There’s no mention of Good Deeds—no act of charity, no redeeming kindness—and no company on the long journey.

A slim, uncompromisingly honest novel, Everyman is as dark and death-haunted as anything Mr. Roth has written. More spare and more direct than John Updike’s recent laments about aging, Everyman does for death and dying what Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) did for masturbation. The new novel begins in a graveyard and never escapes for long. The narrow focus on mortality doesn’t even leave Mr. Roth room to be outrageous, as he was in Sabbath’s Theater (1995), another death-haunted book. “Old age isn’t a battle; old age is a massacre”—that bleak one-liner pretty much sums up the humor on offer.

The body buried in the first few pages belongs to our unnamed hero, a man who grew up in New Jersey, spent his adult life in Manhattan working in advertising, fathered two sons and a daughter, suffered through three divorces, and retreated, just a couple of months after 9/11 and a couple of years shy of his 70th birthday, to a retirement community on the Jersey shore, where he devoted himself to painting. Though we know from the beginning how the novel must end, once we’re immersed in his story we somehow manage to block out the fact that he’s going to die. The narrative enlists us in the most common human delusion, the idea that life will continue indefinitely. Reading his story and sharing his delusion, we become Everyman.

Even as a 9-year-old, Mr. Roth’s Everyman has morbid tendencies. The night before a hernia operation, “he couldn’t get the word ‘graveyard’ to stop tormenting him.” And here he is as a grown man, walking on a beach at night: “The profusion of stars told him unambiguously that he was doomed to die, and the thunder of the sea only yards away—the nightmare of the blackest blackness beneath the frenzy of the water—made him want to run from the menace of oblivion.” Though he’s certain that “life’s most disturbing intensity is death,” he tries to force it out of his mind by an act of will: “I’m thirty-four! Worry about oblivion, he told himself, when you’re seventy-five! The remote future will be time enough to anguish over the ultimate catastrophe.”

The novel is punctuated by visits to the hospital. In his mid-30’s, a burst appendix nearly kills him. In his mid-50’s, he has emergency cardiac surgery, and though the operation is a success, in his 60’s his health deteriorates (“not a year went by when he wasn’t hospitalized …. [E]luding death seemed to have become the central business of his life and bodily decay his entire story”).

But even with these constant reminders of death’s imminence, the delusion persists: “I had thought—secretly I was certain—that life goes on and on.”

He gives art classes at his retirement village, but there’s no solace in the company of his students, “their personal biographies having by this time become identical with their medical biographies.”

His own painting fails to insulate him “from the knowledge that you are born to live and you die instead,” and this realization prompts an extraordinary morbid meditation: “Suddenly he was lost in nothing, in the sound of the two syllables ‘nothing’ no less than in the nothingness, lost and drifting, and the dread began to seep in. Nothing comes without risk, he thought, nothing, nothing—there’s nothing that doesn’t backfire, not even painting stupid pictures!” It’s an aria on extinction worthy of Beckett.

Are we having fun yet?

There are in fact flashes of joy, brief passages that hum with vitality and unclouded happiness. Almost all of these occur when he’s “looking through the large sunny window of [his] boyhood years.” The most gorgeous childhood memory evokes with startling immediacy the feel of body surfing, “the ecstasy of a whole day of being battered silly by the sea.” He remembers being so “intoxicated” by the taste of the ocean on his skin, baked by the sun, that he was almost ready to bite off chunks of himself to “savor his fleshly existence.”

But in this book, fleshly existence is only a warm-up for fleshly decay. The connection is hammered home by the “brutal directness” of his own father’s burial: In accordance with traditional Jewish rites, the mourners themselves shovel every clod of dirt onto the coffin until the grave is full. It takes nearly an hour to do the job, and during that time he imagines the dirt being deposited directly onto his father’s corpse, “filling up his mouth, blinding his eyes, clogging his nostrils, and closing off his ears.” Afterwards, “he could taste the dirt coating the inside of his mouth.” This burial—“like a second death, one no less awful than the first”—is an intensely powerful dramatization of Shakespeare’s great phrase, “To lie in cold obstruction.”

The only epiphany is a painfully sad self-flagellation our Everyman administers after he cuts himself off from his beloved older brother: “This ordinarily even-tempered man struck furiously at his heart like some fanatic at prayer … assailed by remorse not just for this mistake but for all his mistakes, all the ineradicable, stupid, inescapable mistakes.”

The only advice handed out (from father to daughter) is this shard of unvarnished stoicism: “There’s no remaking reality …. Just take it as it comes. Hold your ground and take it as it comes.”

And the only dim ray of hope, hinted at in the book’s penultimate sentence, is merely that with death we are “freed from being”—liberated into nothingness.

Adam Begley is the books editor of The Observer. Roth Does a Dance With Death,  Gloomy, Honest, Uncompromising