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Book review: “Everyman” by Philip Roth Previous item Book review: “Fast Funny... Next item Book review: “The Second...

Book review: “Everyman” by Philip Roth

When the operation began, the man “went under feeling far from felled, anything but doomed, eager yet again to be fulfilled.”  But the reader knows he will not emerge alive.

He was dead and in his grave on the first page of Philip Roth’s short 2006 novel Everyman.  It was the funeral, and various friends and family, including an ex-wife and an ex-lover nurse, were there, some speaking and then tossing clumps of dirt on his casket. And, then, it was over.

In a matter of minutes, everybody had walked away — wearily and tearfully walked away from our species’ least favorite activity — and he was left behind.  Of course, as when anyone dies, though many were grief-stricken, others remained unperturbed, or found themselves relieved, or, for reasons good and bad, were genuinely pleased.

This paragraph comes on page 15 of the novel, and then comes the next sentence:

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.

The remaining 167 pages of the novel are this exercise in recollection, an exercise that deals not only with those women — his mother, his wives, that red-haired nurse who became his lover — but, even more, his own life as a physically vital man, as a successful advertising creative director, as a randy philanderer and a crappy husband, and ultimately as someone who in retirement endured serious surgeries eight years in a row and whose body was wearing out and who had come face to face with “the humiliating realization that not only physically [he] had now diminished into someone he did not want to be.”

Indeed, this 71-year-old man who had no religious faith or belief in God or an afterlife “began striking his chest with his fist, striking in cadence with his self-admonition, and missing by mere inches his defibrillator…struck furiously at his heart like some fanatic at prayer” in uncontainable remorse “for all his mistakes, all the ineradicable, stupid, inescapable mistakes” of his life.

The name of the jewelry store

Roth never names the man.  Neither does he provide the last name of the man’s brother Howie or his jeweler father or his homemaker mother.

The family is Jewish, and the father’s jewelry store, opened in 1933 in Elizabeth, New Jersey, catered to a Jewish clientele but not exclusively.  The father needed his Christian customers so he would extend credit liberally and “at Christmastime he always had a snow scene with Santa in the window.”

But, as the man thinks back over the course of a lifetime on the night before his surgery, he recalls:

“[His father’s] stroke of genius was to call the business not by his name but rather Everyman’s Jewelry Store, which was how it was known throughout Union County to the swarms of ordinary people who were his faithful customers until he sold his inventory to the wholesaler and retired at the age of seventy-three.”

It is in this way, as well through the title of the novel, that Roth directs the reader to think of the man awaiting surgery in a matter of hours years as Everyman. As Roth noted in an interview, Everyman was the name of the central character of the fifteenth-century morality play Everyman who is accosted by Death and told he must account for his life. 

Stand-in

An everyman is common in literature — someone who stands in for every human being, often a character who is oppressed by life, circumstances or other people, such as Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, or one who, without training or preparation, must rise to the occasion to face threats and obstacles, such as Marty McFly of the Back to the Future movies.

The idea is that the experience of the everyman is universal so, when something happens to Tom Joad, the reader feels it, or when Marty McFly is uncomfortable when the teenage girl who will become his mother flirts with him, the reader is uncomfortable too.

Everyman in this Roth novel is designed to be the stand-in for readers as he looks back on his life from the perspective of his physical deterioration and looks forward to the darkness to come.  When Everyman sees a back brace as a dark metaphor, so does the reader:

It was only a standard back brace, worn under the outer clothing, whose plastic posterior section was no more than eight or nine inches high, and yet it spoke to him of the perpetual nearness in their affluent retirement village of illness and death.

As a human being

Some readers, though, particularly women, may find this Rothian Everyman hard to stomach.  Many reviewers throughout Roth’s career, particularly women, have found his portrayals of wives, lovers and other females as nothing short of misogynistic.

And, certainly, in his recollections in this novel, Everyman doesn’t bring much depth to his characterizations of women.  His mother is little more than her mother-ness; his daughter, her daughter-ness; and each wife, a wife-ness.

Much the same, however, can be said about Everyman’s descriptions of the men in his life. 

His brother Howie, his strongest male link, is recalled in youth, in young adulthood, in old age, as being simply and solely a constant winner, a millionaire who was never been sick a day in his life and who, on or about this night before the surgery, when Everyman tried to call him to end the coolness he caused between them, is in Tibet on business. 

About his brother as a human being, as someone who, like every other human being, has faced the same feelings, the same longings, the same existential challenges as Everyman — nothing.

“A word he loved to savor”

About his father as a human being, similarly nothing — just a lot about his jewelry business and about jewels.

At the moment in the Paris jewelry store when, after several days in bed with a Danish model decades younger than he — who would in due time become his third wife, the “most helpless of mates” — at this moment in a weekend of adultery which, unknown to Everyman, his second wife already knows about, when he is spending a huge amount on a diamond pendant necklace on a gold chain for this 24-year-old and showing off the jeweler’s expertise he learned from his father — at this moment, he tells the young woman what his father always said:

“My father would say, ‘Beyond the beauty and the status and the value, the diamond is imperishable.’ ‘Imperishable’ was a word he loved to savor.”

It is only one word, but it gives to his father more dignity than anyone else in Everyman’s orbit gets.

Of course, “imperishable” is at the core of Roth’s novel Everyman

What his character Everyman has discovered after 71 years on earth and three marriages and three children and a career in advertising and a retirement of painting and, now, after seven surgeries in seven years and an eighth about to come, is that he, human being that he is, is not imperishable.

Everyman is learning that he is very perishable.

Regardless of his virtues and vices

Roth’s character Everyman is portrayed — he shows himself to be in his recollections — a selfish, self-obsessed, self-deluding man.   Pretty much a thoughtless man, thoughtless to others and thoughtless, too, about himself, taking convenient paths and accepting superficial excuses for himself.

So why do we care?  Why is Everyman, to my mind, a sober, rich and deep novel?

It is because, when each human being realizes the deterioration of the body and the approach of death, there is nowhere to hide.  Each human being in that circumstance is alone, regardless of who is around, loving or not loving. 

Most of us, perhaps, aren’t as self-involved as Everyman is, to the exclusion of the feelings of others.  Even so, especially when the term of life is nearing its end, each of us is exquisitely aware of our individuality, our aloneness and our vulnerability.  And we are, in that way, self-focused. 

Everyman may not be an attractive character.  I suspect Roth made him unattractive for a reason. A reader relates to Everyman not because there is great compassion or great nobility in him, but despite his lack of such qualities. 

A reader embraces the story of Everyman because, regardless of his virtues and vices, Everyman is just like me and just like you in facing an end, the end.

“Little square building”

Roth’s novel begins and ends in the same “rundown” cemetery.  And several times in his recollections, Everyman goes there, to the place where his parents are buried.  Indeed, on the day of his father’s burial, he recognizes the deterioration of the place and of the monuments and memorials in it:

At the head of the crowded rows of upright gravestones stood the old section’s one small brick mausoleum, whose filigreed steel door and original two windows — which, at the time of interment of its occupants, would have been colored with stained glass — had been sealed with concrete blocks to protect against further vandalism, so that now the little square building looked more like an abandoned toolshed or an outdoor toilet no longer in operation than an eternal dwelling place in keeping with the renown, wealth, or status of those who’d constructed it to house their family dead.

The cemetery, the “eternal dwelling place” of so many dead, is as prone to deterioration as the human body.

And, for Roth, for his character Everyman, death is a “little square building” that looks like “an outdoor toilet no longer in operation.”

Roth’s novel Everyman isn’t maudlin or portentous.  It encapsulates in one selfish man’s recollections all the unavoidable terror and regret that every human being must face as the clock ticks its final moments. 

It is a kind of poem and a kind of prayer.

Patrick T. Reardon

5.9.21

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