Philip Roth, Swinging for the Fences


By Philip Roth
182 pages. Houghton Mifflin. $24.00.

The hyper-competitive Ernest Hemingway once told an interviewer that “Nobody’s going to get me in the ring with Mr. Tolstoy”—that is, he went on to explain, “unless I’m crazy or I keep getting better.” That Hemingway calculated the relative worth of fellow writers, living and dead, in boxing metaphors is hardly surprising: he was, after all, an amateur boxer himself and made it a point to talk about literature in boxing lingo rather than in the erudite language of an Ivy League professor. Part of Hemingway’s swaggering confidence was the booze talking, part was the persona he put on with his hunting togs, but there was also a part that believed, genuinely believed, that he was better than Turgenev, Stendhal, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner. But he checked his large ego at the door when it came to Tolstoy.

Philip Roth is never confused with Ernest Hemingway—not in the ring or at the writing desk—but with Everyman, a novella-length rumination on our collective march toward death, he climbs into the ring with Tolstoy. Everyman, in short, is “The Death of Ivan Ilych” set in contemporary America and cast in the exquisite paragraphs we recognize at once as belonging to Mr. Roth:

The next to throw dirt onto the lid of the coffin was Howie, who’d been the object of his worship when they were children and in return had always treated him with gentleness and affection, patiently teaching him to ride a bike and to swim and to play all the sports in which Howie himself excelled. It still appeared as if he could run a football through the middle of the line, and he was seventy-seven years old. He’d never been hospitalized for anything and, though a sibling bred of the same stock, had remained triumphantly healthy of all his life.

Howie’s brother, the novella’s unnamed “Everyman,” eventually comes to envy and then to hate his successful, all-too-healthy sibling. Why, he keeps raging, are life’s pleasures and pains parceled out so unequally, unfairly? Why must Everyman helplessly watch as his parents die and his own body deteriorates?

Literature’s two great themes are sex and death. Over a long, prolific career, Roth has dealt, sometimes ad nauseum, with the former; Everyman, at long last, focuses on the latter, at a time when Roth’s own elongated medical history prompts him to pick lines from Keats’s “Ode on a Nightingale” (“Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies”) for the novella’s epigraph and when he realizes full well that “life’s most disturbing intensity is death.”

When Roth follows the adventures of his alter-ego, Nathan Zuckerman, he concerns himself with the fate of being (or trying to be) an artist in late 20th century America. After penning a scandalous book about his family, Zuckerman is, well, famous, and he is destined to live out his days at once rich and crying himself to sleep on his silken pillowcases. By contrast, his Everyman (like Ivan Ilych) is a study in the mundane. Born in Elizabeth, New Jersey, he is the son of a reasonably well-off jeweler, and in all respects, a dutiful son, able, as a nine-year-old, to transport a pouch of diamonds to Newark.

Later, Roth’s protagonist works as an advertising agency’s art director (not quite a throwback to earlier ad men in gray flannel suits but close enough) and manages to go through three marriages. With the third one, to a Danish fashion model, Roth gets a chance to play the sex card, and while he does his best to grab our attention and to shock, the novella’s more memorable scenes happen elsewhere—when his second wife, Phoebe, reads him the riot act for womanizing, or when a black gravedigger describes, in meticulous detail, the art of making a proper grave.

“Old age isn’t a battle,” we are told, “old age is a massacre.” It is also not for sissies, as Roth describes one “procedure” after another. No doubt many readers will find all this just too depressing, and they will have a point. Everyman does not, indeed, it cannot, paint a rosy picture of what happens to our bodies while we’re not paying attention and the decades roll along. When Roth’s protagonist hangs up his easel at the ad agency, he hopes to paint—for real—in his retirement condo at the Jersey shore. And while there are some poignant moments as he conducts art classes for his fellow senior citizens, it becomes painfully clear that he was never much of a painter himself, and certainly not the artist he hoped he would one day become. Putting food on the table and balancing the family checkbook took precedence. They were Everyman’s time-consuming, exhausting priorities.

If he had not screwed up his marriages and alienated two of his three children (only his daughter remains caring and affectionate) perhaps this unnamed protagonist would have faced his 70s in better shape, despite the baggage of ill health he lugged around for decades. But the awful truth was, first, that he was ordinary and, second, that he had wasted his life. He did not know why, and for what, he lived, so it is hardly surprising that he would not know why he died.

Everyman may not be among the five or six Roth novels that are absolute stunners and it will surely not displace Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilych” on required reading lists, but I think it was a good thing that Roth dared to do what Papa Hemingway could not—namely, to wrestle with Death until it calls out your name.