Thursday, July 26, 2007

"Oh, Death, thou comest when I had thee least in mind."

Everyman, by Philip Roth, Read by George Guidall, Recorded Books, LLC, 2006

One day when I was in college, I had an epiphany. The appendix inside my body was a living, ticking time bomb that had the potential to explode at any moment. It mightn’t wait until I was somewhere near a doctor; it could go off while I was hiking through the Australian outback or in Suriname or who the hell knew where.

Epiphany turned to obsession. I checked large medical texts out of the college library, researching everything I could find about the appendix. I managed to routinely work it into nearly every conversation I had with people, getting sometimes bizarre looks. Every abdominal abnormality earned red alert status. I worried at night about my appendix to the point of having appendectomy nightmares. I even called several doctors in the area, trying to find one who would remove an appendix as an elective surgery. All to no avail. In America, you can have fat liposuctioned out of your ass and injected into your face, but try to convince the medical profession to remove a potentially fatal vestigial organ and it’s no go.

The point where Phillip Roth’s dispiriting Everyman reaches its eponymous hero’s bout with appendicitis, I began to feel queasy, rubbing my hands on my thighs repeatedly, getting up from my desk then sitting right back down, and sweating profusely. Roth’s slim book remains as religiously fixated on failing health as his earlier Portnoy’s Complaint kept its gaze always upon sex. The story, one trip to the hospital after another all on the relentless march toward death, keeps its focus squarely on its nameless protagonist’s health.

Of course, it being a Roth book that means that even should the main character consider himself nothing “more than an average human being,” the story will circle around sex and infidelity and what it means to be an American Jew. It is perhaps the lack of the first two elements that made Roth’s The Plot Against America so refreshing; their disappearance from the story demonstrated that Roth needn’t always be whipping it out for his audience.

The book begins with its hero’s funeral. It is one of many alluded to in the book. “Old age,” he notes at one point considering all of his friends who've fallen, “isn’t a battle. It’s a massacre.” I may have been to considerably fewer funerals than Roth, but the speeches here seem a bit more aimed at the Reader rather than the funerary audience who one suspects should know some of what is said. Brother Howie’s remembrance in particular itself reads as something written, previously prepared.

We back up a little to the night before the surgery that killed Everyman and learn about his life, who he is, what he’s done, how he became the man buried in the book’s opening pages. We learn of his savvy jewelry store owning father, his brother, his early sexual experiences with girlfriends, and his three marriages. We watch as each new health crisis, starting with a hernia operation at the age of nine, arises and is dealt with and we see how these developments affect his life and his relationships with the world.

What remains fascinating about the book is how little people write about ill health as just part and parcel of life. Often sickness arises in novels as dramatic device or complication, a tragedy that befalls a character that then becomes a turning point of the story. Here in Everyman, Roth catalogs each weakness that flesh is heir to and that’s the point of the novel wholly. That we grow old and we grow sicker and sicker. Roth even takes us inside a retirement community where illness and medications are the common lingo of the day.

They ask and relate: “‘How’s your sugar?’ ‘How’s your pressure?’ ‘What’d the doctor say?’ ‘Did you hear about my neighbor? It’s spread to the liver.’”

This retirement community move is brought on by Everyman’s inability to sustain human relationships, rather a common enough theme and occurrence in Roth’s work. Everyman’s selfishness leads to his three divorces as it estranges him from his children and his friends. He even becomes such a monster of his illnesses that he turns on his brother Howie, the very last person he has left, angered at his good health.

In striving to create a hero we can empathize with, Roth took quite a gamble with his protagonist, but then Roth’s books always strike me as a gamble for him. Thinking back over the years, I can’t recall a single one of his books save The Plot Against America that featured an all together likable protagonist. In a different author, one might be tempted to say that the novel tries to show what monsters illness makes of people. Roth isn’t having any of that treacle. Here, he is saying, we are all monsters already, certainly monsters capable of acts of great kindness and beauty, but monsters under all the flesh. Illness doesn’t turn us into monsters; it releases what’s been inside of us all along.

That’s perhaps the most frightening subtext to the novel. It is the message Roth has been sounding for years inside his satires and his obsessions with sex. In his youthful prime, Roth wrote of how the desire for sex unleashed the beast. In his seventy-third year, he shows us what else we are made of, what becomes of the sexy animals we once were. The portrait is angry, comical, and sobering. It also one of Roth’s most intimate later works.

George Guidall reads and his now grizzled veteran’s voice is perfect for Roth’s aged Everyman. It may lack Ron Silver's New York snap and sizzle, but here the fire is fading.


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