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By Philip Roth
No American novelist knows his craft better than Philip Roth. But in the past decade, as he delivered an unbroken string of prize winners, from Sabbath's Theater to his recent bestseller, The Plot Against America, the Newark-born writer quietly apprenticed himself to a new literary form: the eulogy.
"It's not a genre I wanted to master," says Roth at the offices of his literary agent, dressed in a black sweater and blue oxford shirt. "I've attended funerals of let's say four close friends, one of whom was a writer." He wasn't prepared for any of them.
"The plan goes like this. Your grandparents die. And then in time your parents die. The truly startling thing is that your friends start to die. That's not in the plan."
Roth says this experience prompted him to write Everyman, his latest novel, a stunning meditation on the meaning of mortality. The action opens at the funeral of its unnamed hero, then backtracks to give us the man's life story.
In many ways, Everyman is an unusual Roth character. He works in advertising, and remains a faithful father for long stretches of time. "I wanted a man who was in the mainstream," says Roth. "So [this guy] attempts to lead a life within the conventions, and the conventions fail him, as they do conventionally."
Over time, as his body breaks down, Roth's character leaves his marriage, falls out with his brother, and then ultimately quits advertising to spend his retirement painting. All the while his internal body clock ticks away. In fact, the novel, which Roth once called, "The Medical History," could be read like a well fleshed out physician's chart.
"As people advance in age," says Roth, who turned 73 in March, "their biography narrows down to their medical biography. They spend time in the care of doctors and hospitals and pharmacies and eventually, as happens here, they become almost identical with their medical biography."
Dr. Jerome Groopman, a medical columnist for The New Yorker and a professor at Harvard Medical School, says Roth "clearly did his homework when it came to many of the clinical aspects." Several operating scenes are described in detail, as are the technicalities of procedures. But Groopman believes there's much more to the novel than that.
"The meat of the book, the heart of it, is the story of this man and the human condition, and the mistakes we make through life - how these then come back and fail to protect us from the fear and loneliness facing mortality."
In this fashion, the novel draws upon the 15th-century morality play, Everyman, in which a young man meets Death upon the road. "Everyman then utters what is perhaps as strong as any line written between the death of Chaucer and the birth of Shakespeare," says Roth, savoring the language. "Oh, death, thou comest when I had thee least in mind."
Roth's hero has a series of similar moments. In his childhood, he has a nearly fatal attack of appendicitis. In his youth, he has an epiphany while standing on the beach. "The profusion of stars told him unambiguously that he was doomed to die," goes one passage. "[T]he thunder of the sea only yards away - made him want to run from the menace of oblivion to their cozy, lighted, underfurnished house."
Roth has written of mortality before. He addressed the topic with pathos in his National Book Critics Circle Award winning memoir, Patrimony, and with hysterical humor in his novel Sabbath's Theater, winner of the National Book Award. The last line of that book: "How could he leave? How could he go? Everything he hated was here."
"Everyman, however, has none of these hyperbolic flourishes. "It's extremely dark," says Pulitzer Prize winning poet, Mark Strand, a friend of Roth's for more than 40 years. "And really unalleviated by the usual hijinx and humor that Roth is able to inject into novels."
Novelist Paul Theroux, who read the novel in one sitting, and then again, says that Roth's ability to work without his usual stunts is what makes the novel so impressive. "Its power arises from its persuasive detail, its fully realized and recognizable people, their weaknesses especially."
In the past, Roth has written so autobiographically he is often confused with his characters - and their weaknesses. During the '60s, when his blockbuster novel Portnoy's Complaint was racking up half a million copies in sales, Jacqueline Susan, author of Valley of the Dolls, drolled she would like to meet him, but wasn't sure she'd like to shake his hand.
Everyman has its share of Roth moments - the hero is remarkably virile well into his 70s - but they tend to be of a tender biographical note. The opening scene alludes to the funeral of Roth's close friend and literary mentor, Saul Bellow, who died in 2005.
In another scene, the character visits the grave of his two parents, and meets the man who probably dug their grave. "That is almost certainly based on Roth's experience," says Strand. "Nothing is lost on Philip, whatever he can use, he'll use."
But it would be a mistake to think that Roth is contemplating the end with shaky hands. In person, he appears fit and vigorous, arriving with a duffel bag like a man who has just returned from the Y. His gaze is powerful and intense. Death still does not frighten him.
"[This book] wasn't on my mind because of my own death, which I don't think is - I hope isn't - imminent," he says. Even when Roth had open heart surgery in 1988, he didn't think twice about worrying. "Well, I never believed I would expire. I was pretty sure these guys knew what they were doing, that they would fix me up, and they did."
"He's had physical setbacks," Strand says, "but he began much stronger and more athletic than the rest of us."
"When I met him he was a terrific ball player, he could hit the ball a mile. I still think of him as vigorous. And intellectually, he's one of the most alert people I've ever met. He serves up stories that are just mesmerizing, and hilarious - and he just tosses them off in casual conversation - when you listen to him you know you're just in the presence of a natural storyteller."
"When I was a kid," says Roth, "because my father was in the insurance business, he had actuarial booklets, and I knew women lived to be 63, men to be 61. Now I think it's 73. It hasn't changed dramatically when you think of all the medical progress of the postwar era."
In his reading of Everyman, Groopman sees a certain sad truth in this. "There is a very prevalent illusion with all the technology we have, all the advances we have made in medicine, there is this sense that we should have control over our clinical outcome."
But as Roth's hero finds out - as we all do - that's not the case. "The contract is a bad contract and we all have to sign it," Roth quips grimly. In 19th-century novels, like Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilyich, awareness of life's end sent characters reaching to God or religion. Not here, not for Roth's Everyman. Or for its creator for that matter. "Nothing will force my hand," he says unequivocally.
The writer is president of the National Book Critics Circle.