Following the historical panoramas of his recent work, Roth’s new novel— a novella, really—is a transfixing summary biography of a seventy-one-year-old mortal from Elizabeth, New Jersey: “He’d married three times, had mistresses and children and an interesting job where he’d been a success, but now eluding death seemed to have become the central business of his life and bodily decay his entire story.”
Thus the personal history of this “average human being” is reduced almost to a surgical history: hernia trouble as a boy; a burst appendix and peritonitis in his thirties; and, in his fifties and sixties, disastrously recurrent cardiac difficulties that clutter him with six stents and a defibrillator. The vocabulary of heart disease hurled at the reader—angiogram, anterior descending artery, ejection fraction, fatal cardiac arrhythmia—is supplemented by the back braces, strokes, cancers, and migraines that plague our hero’s nearest and dearest. The whole “onslaught” is horribly aggravated by his memories of carnal exaltation and bungled marriages and the beloved dead, not to mention by the awful truth that “there was nothing to be done. No fight to put up. You take it and endure it. Just give yourself over to it as long as it lasts.”
Let’s use a noun I’ve never used before: masterpiece. Whereas Roth’s prize-laden recent fictions are a tad manipulative, in Everyman there is never any sense of a novelist trying to write a novel. Every sentence is urgent, essential, almost nonfictional. The sophistication and indirection forced on practically every writer are replaced by a straightforwardness of, yes, masterly authority. The text so thoroughly embodies, rather than displays, expertise that only after I’d finished reading did I realize that the protagonist’s name had been withheld. Everyman is therefore that rarest of literary achievements: a novel that disappears as it progresses, leaving in one’s hands only the matters of life and death it describes.
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