Everyman by Philip Roth

The unamed protagonist of Everyman is afraid of oblivion. He starts life frailer than his robust and outgoing brother and, consequently, begins worrying about the end well before most. As a child, he is admitted to the hospital for hernia surgery. The boy with whom he shares a room disappears one night and the protagonist, Everyman, assumes he died. Roth manages the scene with both knowing humor and the urgency of a naive child. Of course, maybe the roommate did die.

Everyman recovers from the surgery and has a pretty healthy life until middle age. But even before ailments begin to disrupt Everyman’s normally energetic lifestyle, he worries about death. While still in his thirties, Everyman enjoys a vacation at a beach house with a lover. Thoughts of non-existence intrude on the idyll:

The only unsettling moments were at night, when they walked along the beach together. The dark sea rolling in with its momentous thud and the sky lavish with stars made Phoebe rapturous. But frightened him. The profusion of stars told him unambiguously that he was doomed to die. And the thunder of the sea only yards away and the nightmare of the blackest blackness beneath the frenzy of the water made him want to run from the menace of oblivion to their cozy, lighted, underfurnished house.

He decides to put off worrying about oblivion until old age and does his best to follow this plan. Still, he returns again and again to the idea of oblivion. When he develops health problems sooner than his older brother, their once close relationship strained due to Everyman’s jealousy of his brother’s health.

Roth writes beautifully of a man obsessively concerned with his own end. The protagonist, is less beautiful. Everyman is extremely narcissistic. He has two chief concerns in life: sex and death.

His objective with regard to sex is that he get as much of it as possible. He cheats on every significant other in his life and, at 70-something, bemoans the discovery that the 20-something he had attempted to seduce was only humoring him. He regrets, not that he should have done more with the time he had, but that he does not have more time to engage in the same rather pathetic pursuits in which he has always engaged.

As for death, he is terribly concerned with his own. The deaths of others disconcert him primarily because it brings into clearer focus his own eventual fate. Oblivion is, for him, a great calamity.

It is unfortunate, I can agree, but Everyman thinks too much of himself. A person’s death is really only a calamity to those who love him, who are loved by him. A character who seems to have lived a more laudable life illustrates this point in a particularly touching scene. She is a student in the art class Everyman teaches, a class populated mostly by the elderly. She, his star pupil, has back pains which occasionally force her to lie down in his room. He finds her there, crying.

“Would a heating pad help?” he asked.

“You know what would help?” she said. “The sound of that voice that’s disappeared, the sound of the exceptional man I loved. I think I could take all this, if he were here. But I can’t without him. I never saw him weaken, once in his life. Then came the cancer and it crushed him.”

I suspect Everyman is more taken by the crushing force of cancer than the exceptional love of this woman for another. Cancer, heart disease, a bulldozer, something will crush us all. But not all of us will love like the art student, not all of us will be loved as was her “exceptional man.” Hers, theirs, is the calamity.

Everyman’s preoccupation with death is as base as his drive for orgasms. He has all but destroyed every potentially meaningful relationship he has ever had. He is able to reach out to some other battered old men late in life, but that is only to console himself, to look inward again, at the tragedy he is facing. They are not people he will miss. They are not people who will miss him. They are simply examples of what awaits and that is what Everyman finds calamitous. That he, Everyman, must be swallowed by oblivion.

The writing is beautiful, but I am underwhelmed by Roth’s focus on death, deterioration, and sex. These are neither lofty nor abstruse concepts. We live, we die. Because all life has evolved to procreate, we have the desire to achieve orgasm. This latter fact is more tragic than oblivion. Our short time is spent preoccupied too much with the concerns of dogs within sniffing distance of a bitch in heat, not enough with more meritorious goals. If only our need to love, connect with, and respect our fellow travelers was as instinctively compelling, that would be something.

The true calamity, then, is that Everyman is far too much like every man.

(This is a review of the audio version, read by George Guidall.)

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4 Responses to Everyman by Philip Roth

  1. Kerry: I reread Everyman recently because I was reading Roth’s new novel, The Humbling. I shared your disappointment for almost exactly the same reasons — the central character’s selfish preoccupations wear very thin, even in a short novel. Yet, that is contrasted with some excellent writing and thoughts about mortality. I could not help but come to the conclusion that the novel could have been so much more — something that I do think Roth achieves in The Humbling.

  2. Kerry says:

    Thank you, Kevin. I was wondering if maybe I was just grumpy. I will try The Humbling for, hopefully, a more successful run at largely the same subject. Roth does write beautifully, so I am never sorry I have read (listened to) his work and will look forward, with reservations, to The Humbling.

    Thanks, as always, for the comment.

  3. Sarah says:

    I haven’t read any Philip Roth, but your reveiw suggests to me that I would not like this one. He’s not awfully high on my list of authors to read, so I probably will not make the attempt until I stumble across a more favourable review.

  4. Kerry says:

    I can tell you that A Commonplace Blog ranks The Dying Animal as one of the best books of the decade. I do not agree with that evaluation (and you can read my review), so I am still waiting for a Roth I can recommend without reservations. But his writing is good enough and his reputation stellar enough, that I just know there is a great book somewhere on his shelf. I will let you know if I find the one that speaks to me.

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