Everyman by Philip Roth. Vintage. 182 pp. $13.95
Maybe not Every Man, but Every Philip Roth Protagonist.
The novel opens in a startling way, with the unnamed protagonist’s funeral. That opening is apt, because the novel’s focus is an unabashed look at the fact of our mortality, with no blinders on and no consolation. In that sense the title seems right. Every human has to go through this.
There’s something terribly familiar about this character, raised in New Jersey in a Jewish household (his father had a jewelry store called Everyman’s, because he sold quality watches to the common man), extremely successful in his career (as an adman, in this case), successful also with women (if success involves getting them in bed). Around his grave at the funeral are two sons from his first marriage—they hated the father who deserted them—a daughter from a second marriage (who adored him) that second wife (his true mate), and his beloved older brother Howie, his hero and the person with whom the protagonist was closest.
Somehow I feel as if I’ve read this story before, elsewhere in the work of Philip Roth. The first marriage was not successful; maybe he had married the wrong woman, or was devoting too much time to work to pay attention to her and his two sons. He left her for the love of his life, a woman named Phoebe whom he genuinely cared for and who bore him a wonderful daughter. But twelve years into that second marriage, when he was in his early fifties and they hadn’t been sleeping together for six years, he was surrounded by the young women who populate the world of advertising, and like all Philip Roth characters, couldn’t resist them (and they couldn’t resist him, a fact slightly harder to understand, except that he was a powerful person in the workplace). Phoebe overlooked the first affair, with a secretary whom he kept banging on the office carpet, but would not overlook the second, with a model whom he followed to Paris for a long weekend. She caught wind of that and threw him out. He had blown everything.
At that point, exhibiting the cluelessness that men have exhibited since time began, he married the model. I could understand his behavior up to then, but marrying a young woman with whom he had almost nothing in common (except a yen for anal sex) seems the height of folly. It was after that that he began to have health issues, and began a long slow downhill trajectory. He wound up as an old man with heart trouble, propositioning an attractive woman he saw jogging on the boardwalk (she stopped to talk, but turned him down). By that point he seemed pathetic. And he had done it all to himself.
Roth writes great sentences, and his books are a model of craftsmanship, a pleasure to read. But there is an underlying air of bitterness, sourness, I don’t know what to call it, to his entire oeuvre. Life should be beautiful for these people—they have all the advantages—but it’s turned to ashes. Also, many women readers, including just about all the women I know, hate Roth and everything he writes with a visceral dislike that goes beyond literary criticism. That feeling seems to reflect his portrayal of women and general attitude toward them. It may have started when he called his most sexually satisfying partner in Portnoy’s Complaint “The Monkey” (you’re a monkey if you’re a woman and you like sex?). It also seems that what he really likes about women is what’s between their legs (on both sides, apparently). The way the protagonist acts in this novel is typical. He has the woman of a lifetime, his true soul mate, sitting at home waiting for him. But there he is at work, rolling around on the carpet with his secretary.
Another aspect of that sourness and bitterness (has the man ever smiled for a photograph in his life? He takes himself so seriously!) is the absolute absence of any spiritual consolation. He gave up the religion of his youth—I’m talking about the Philip Roth protagonist now, of which this Everyman seems to be an amalgam—but never found anything beyond that, didn’t seem to try. Roth sees the beauty of life, and writes about it beautifully, especially his early life, when his protagonist lived by the seashore and had his beloved older brother to look up to. But he seems to be speaking for himself when he characterizes this man as “one who put no stock in an afterlife and knew without a doubt that God was a fiction” (without a doubt? How could that be?). He’s talented, successful, well off, has had all the sex that anyone could want (though everybody wants more); he’s genuinely kind to people, but is somehow closed off from something larger, resolutely unwilling to look at it, finding meaning only in the events of our life. I believe this kind of person is called a materialist. And in the end he’s a bitter old guy propositioning a young girl on the boardwalk, probably drooling as he does it. He’s pathetic.
He’s also somehow terrifying.
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