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Book review: “Everyman” by Philip Roth

Philip Roth’s short novel Everyman, published in 2006 when the author was 73, is a bleak, blunt meditation on aging, the deterioration of the human body and the imminence of death.

It tells of an unnamed 71-year-old man who, in the opening pages, is already dead and being buried by family and friends.  After the opening scene in the cemetery — a place that will pop up twice more in the following pages — the story shifts to several days earlier:

Though he had grown accustomed to being on his own and fending for himself since his last divorce ten years back, in his bed the night before the surgery he worked at remembering as exactly as he could each of the women who had been there waiting for him to rise out of the anesthetic in the recovery room, even remembering that most helpless of mates, the last wife, with whom recovering from quintuple bypass surgery had not been a sublime experience.

That rueful, melancholic tone carries through the rest of the 40,000-word book which, although just 182 pages, is packed with the man’s memories of his three wives, his attentive daughter from the second marriage, his angry two sons from the first, his hero-figure older brother and various people from his work career as a Manhattan ad executive and from his time in a retirement community on the Jersey Shore.

It was the first of four short novels that closed Roth’s writing career.  The others are Indignation (2008), The Humbling (2009) and Nemesis (2010), ranging from 140 to 280 pages in length.

“How game?”

The man who spends his time ruminating on the night before the surgery during which he will die is the son of a Jewish jeweler in Elizabeth, New Jersey, who, in order to attract Christian customers, not only put Santa in the store window in the Christmas season but also named his store Everyman’s Jewelry Store.

The jeweler’s six-foot-three-inch son — the Everyman of the title — has led a successful business career and an at times randy personal life. 

“Randy” really doesn’t fit here, for this story, as Everyman looks back.  His sleeping with female co-workers and with other available women and with a 24-year-old erotically charged Danish model when he was 50 and with a day nurse helping him recover from one of what became a yearly string of heart operations might have come across as “randy” if told from the perspective of a character who was vital and on top of the world.

But Everyman has come to feel that the life he had led is over — “the humiliating realization that…he [had] now diminished into someone he did not want to be.”

In the novel’s most excruciating scene, he attempts to flirt with a tiny, sweaty, robustly healthy jogger in her 20s, asking her, “How game are you?”  The woman takes the piece of paper with his phone number, shoves “it deep into her damp tank top before taking off down the boardwalk again” and is never again seen by Everyman.

Alone

Because of the way Everyman has lived his life, he is more alone — by choice — as his life nears its end than many elderly.  He has no spouse or partner to share this fearful time with.  He is close to his good-hearted daughter Nancy but she has her own life to live and then has to take care of her mother, Everyman’s second wife, following a stroke. 

Fulfilling a lifelong wish, Everyman has spent his retirement painting every day, a solitary occupation, and the rest of his time is similarly solitary.  He is a swimmer who, throughout his years, has loved to pit his body against the power of the waves.

The only group activity that he is willing to undertake is to host an art class for other residents in the retirement community, but, as he sees it, he has little in common with the students.

So, Everyman is more unconnected than many elderly.  Yet, his long list of laments over aging will be familiar — and familiarly terrible — to anyone who has moved past middle age.

“Shameful”

Everyman has to face “his own real sorrow.”  His succession of hospitalizations have “made him a decidedly lonelier, less confident man.” 

In the retirement community, he watched a man who had suffered a stroke seem “pierced by bewilderment, dazed by his diminishment, dazed by his helplessness,” a man who suffered “a vitriolic despondency of one once assertively in the middle of everything who was now in the middle of nothing.”

A woman in his art class tells him how the great back pain she suffers makes her feel so alone:

“It’s so shameful…The dependence, the helplessness, the isolation, the dread — it’s all so ghastly and shameful.”

“Once a full human being”

Everyman finds that he has come to hate his brother Howie for his vibrant good health — “that biological endowment that should have been his as well.”

He finds himself burdened by “a bitter sadness that only intensified an unbearable loneliness.”  He finds himself “longing for the best of boyhood, for the tubular sprout that was then his body.”

His choice to move away from Manhattan and all that he had known there has left him, at this point, high and dry — “There was an absence now of all forms of solace, a barrenness.”  He felt overtaken by a sense of “otherness”:

My god, he thought, the man I once was! The life that surrounded me! The force that was mine!  No “otherness” to be felt anywhere! Once upon a time I was a full human being.

“Waiting”

There is much more of this in Everyman despite its short length.

Everyman finds himself feeling insignificant.  He is a magnet for the bad news, such as the message he gets that a former colleague is hospitalized with suicidal depression, a man who, on the phone, has a voice “heavy with hopelessness.”

He finds himself ever aware of how his body is wearing out and how weary he is and how his life has been reduced to

aimless days and the uncertain nights and the impotently putting up with the physical deterioration and the terminal sadness and the waiting and waiting for nothing.

“Foreboding”

And “the foreboding of helplessness to come.”

In the end, Everyman doesn’t have to face helplessness.  He dies in surgery.  It is a commentary on the bleakness that he and Roth’s novel have faced that neither is a good option.  Of course, the best option, not dying, isn’t in the cards.

Everyman is Roth’s Book of Lamentations.  He looked with clear-eyed gaze at the brutal reality that is afflicted on the human body as it moves to its final end — and the brutal reality of death.

And didn’t blink

Patrick T. Reardon

9.19.22

NOTE: A year and a half ago, when I first read Everyman, I wrote a review.  You can find it here.

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