Everyman by Philip Roth: Dewey's review

Cross-posted at my blog.

Everyman is the first Roth book I've read, and it definitely makes me want to read more of his work. But it was terrifying. It begins with the funeral of the main character, then flashes back through his life, ending with his death. I'm not uncomfortable with the idea of death -- I've worked in a funeral home. But I am deeply uncomfortable with the idea of the increased health problems that often become the focus of life as one ages. The unnamed main character, like Roth himself, finds himself suffering repeated hospitalizations. I found the detailed descriptions of the illnesses of this man in his 70s frightening and disturbing. His death almost came as a relief for me, as I imagine it does for many chronically ill people. By the way, mentioning his death isn't a spoiler; the book opens with his funeral.

The main character's life is fairly empty due to a lot of burned bridges with his family members and the loss of connection with his friends once he retires. He's been married (and divorced) three times, and his two children from his first marriage, angry their entire lives about the divorce, aren't on speaking terms with him. He does have a close, rewarding relationship with his daughter from his second marriage, but he's very aware that being the only person she's close to may be somewhat a burden for her. He has very little or no contact with his former wives; his parents are dead; and his brother, though probably the person he's cared most about in his life, has a very active life rich with family on the other side of the U.S., and the main character feels a bit disconnected from him and his children. He's a lonely man, as many older people seem to be.

He doesn't seem to have much to do during the day; he keeps active, exercising twice a day, but that's about all he has planned for each day. He used to paint and even give painting classes to other retirees, but gave up on it. He doesn't seem to read. Unlike most of the elderly neighbors I've had, he doesn't spend all day watching TV.

I guess I've always expected to be an older person much like Wallace in Wallace and Gromit. I expect to have a companion, though preferably a human (my husband, I hope!) instead of a dog. I expect to have passionate interests, such as Wallace's mechanical contraptions, his gardening, and his self-employment. I've assumed my interests as an older person would be pretty much the same interests I have now. But in Everyman, the main character seems to lose interest in what he used to love, even in what he had spent his younger life assuming he'd pursue during retirement, his painting. I'm not sure that's true for everyone; I have friends and acquaintances the age of the main character who still keep active and busy.

I marked a few favorite passages:

"There's no remaking reality," she told him. "Just take it as it comes. Hold your ground and take it as it comes."

I both love and loathe this passage. I love it because it's the main character's daughter, at his funeral, repeating a maxim she'd heard her father use many times in the past. I loathe it because it's so resigned, so defeatist, such an assumption that life will always be a trial.

It was inexplicable to him -- the excitement they could seriously persist in deriving from his denunciation. He had done what he did the way that he did it as they did what they did the way they did it. Was their steadfast posture of unforgivingness any more forgivable? Or any less harmful in its effect?

This is the main character thinking about his broken relationships with his sons. He goes on to think that as he had never abused them or even been strict, they shouldn't hold a life-long grudge against him because he could no longer tolerate marriage to their mother. I like the spirit of letting go of grudges here. I agree with the main character that one should save long-term unforgivingness for more heinous transgressions such as abuse.

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.

This passage is part of the section that Roth chose to read aloud in an NPR interview with him, and I appreciated being able to hear him expand upon his feelings about religion. Although I like to consider myself more tolerant of others' beliefs than the main character of Everyman is, I do share his puzzlement about it. Roth's interviewer seems to find herself puzzled by Roth's descriptions of religion as "irrational" and "delusioned," since she brings the topic back to religion a couple times in the interview, seemingly trying to get him to admit that he does have some sort of religious beliefs, or at least that he does understand why others do. He remains polite but firm in his stance.

I think this firmness is one of the things I found most interesting in the novel. I kept expecting the main character to develop religious convictions as I've seen some of the older people in my family do after a lifetime of indifference to it. I've always assumed that this is driven by a fear of death, of wanting to reconcile with whatever higher power one might meet after death. But the main character (and Roth himself, exactly the same age as his character) remain secular as mortality approaches.

At the same site where you can hear Roth's NPR interview, you can also read the first chapter.

Reading a Guardian interview, I came to the conclusion that Roth would despise this post, and probably book blogging in general. He says:

I would be wonderful with a 100-year moratorium on literature talk, if you shut down all literature departments, close the book reviews, ban the critics. The readers should be alone with the books, and if anyone dared to say anything about them, they would be shot or imprisoned right on the spot. Yes, shot. A 100-year moratorium on insufferable literary talk. You should let people fight with the books on their own and rediscover what they are and what they are not. Anything other than this talk. Fairytale talk. As soon as you generalise, you are in a completely different universe than that of literature, and there's no bridge between the two.


    Nice review. I'm putting this on my TBR list.