Houghton Mifflin Company
215 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10003
At one hundred eighty-two pages, Philip Roth's twenty-seventh book may appear diminutive and can, in fact, be read quickly--if one devours books rather than reflects on their content. Such an attitude would be difficult to sustain in the face of the sobering subject, in this case, the downhill slide towards death that is the inevitable end of the book's title. (Thankfully, Roth hasn't fallen prey to the politically correct mandate against gender specific nouns that might have resulted in dreadful constructions like "Everyman/ Woman," "Every Person" or "Every Being.") The fact that "Everyman" is also the title of a fifteenth century morality tract doesn't hurt either. It adds an additional dollop of timelessness.
Moving backwards from the opening cemetery scene where the unnamed protagonist is attended by those with whom he once shared significant portions of his life, the story recounts the various ways in which he managed to fail each of these people. It is an awareness that overtakes him only as he ages, begins to suffer from deteriorating health, finds himself alone, and loses interest even in the lifelong dream of artistic expression. He was not an evil man, or even a cruel one, simply a creature who chose to swim parallel to the shore, compromising with the rip tides of life. If he was guilty of anything, it was of failing to consider his immediate circumstances and whether he should aggressively attempt to impose his own will on them. Should he have tried to explain his mistakes to the two sons from his first marriage who remain lost to him? Why did he allow middle-aged passion to sweep him to where he destroyed his most supportive relationship? His benign ineptness is further magnified by the shadow of an older, apparently flawless brother who swoops in to assist with amazing frequency. That this brother is a creature blessed with unflagging health, kindness and financial success, only serves to embitter the central character.
While many of the painful realizations Roth's character reaches relate to his particular misconduct, the point must be taken that waiting until the end of life to evaluate one's performance--or even whether one has developed suitable standards by which to live--hardly leaves time for adjustment or improvement. Perhaps that is the saddest lesson of all, the realization that wrongs can no longer be undone, that there is no time left to become someone we ourselves consider admirable.
There is a distinct terror in remembering the empowerment of being young, strong and involved with the pleasures of life, while simultaneously recognizing that such feelings have become the speck on a remote horizon. Roth skillfully encapsulates this in phrases such as, "Old age isn't a battle; old age is a massacre" and "... his longing for the last great outburst of everything" and "Was himself now nothing ... but a motionless cipher awaiting the blessing of an eradication that was absolute." He is a master at recreating the imagery and subtle flavoring of a specific segment of society (hardworking, Jewish middle-class tradesman) at a specific time (1930s and on) and in a specific locale (New Jersey). He does it as well in this slim volume as he did on the broad canvas of "American Pastoral."
Obviously, this is not a book for children, although that depends on what age one believes marks the end of childhood. If high school sits at the gates of adulthood, then those years might be the ideal age at which to consider some of the many things that can go wrong. Of course, at sixteen or seventeen we are convinced that mortality only happens to others or in video games, so the effect is bound to be far less than profound. If nothing else, juniors and seniors would appreciate its lean profile. That it becomes a weighty tome by way of its succinctness will likely elude them. That is unfortunate. The rest of us are becoming aware all too quickly of the inescapable melancholy truths listed in "Everyman."
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Feb 1, 2007|
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