Roth's 'Everyman' Is Retired, Not Retiring

Critic Alan Cheuse reviews Philip Roth's latest work, Everyman — a novel that follows myriad illnesses and grief plaguing the life of an aging and retired ad executive.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris. Philip Roth has been publishing books for five decades. His first work, Goodbye Columbus, won the National Book Award for fiction. He followed up with dozens of books, many bestsellers, like Portnoy's Complaint. His latest novel is titled Everyman and its pages are dark and brooding, filled with illness, grief, and death. In a moment we'll have an interview with the author, but first this review from Alan Cheuse.

ALAN CHEUSE: I'm not giving anything away when I tell you that the opening scene of Philip Roth's somber, short novel takes place around a gravesite at the funeral of the main character. The newly departed is an artist with a middling talent who worked in advertising for most of his life. The scenes that follow the funeral take us back to where he started, in urban northeast New Jersey, the grandchild of immigrants. We learn about his own parents and his older brother, about his several ex-wives and girlfriends, about his near lifelong hopes and fears about mortality. Our everyman.

Roth's main character emerges as an extraordinary ordinary hero, because of powerful sentences that convey the ferocity of everyday experience. As when our modern everyman recalls his boyhood love of summertime swims in the Atlantic Ocean with the taste and the smell of the sea on his skin intoxicating him, Roth writes, so that he was driven to the brink of biting down with his teeth to tear out a chunk of himself and savor his fleshly existence.

That's something like the visceral pleasure of reading this dark recounting of the fleet run of youth and the ambush of middle and old age. Roth bites down hard. And we savor it.

NORRIS: Alan Cheuse teaches writing at George Mason University. He was reviewing Everyman by Philip Roth.

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