Over the course of three decades and nine books, Philip Roth has relied upon his most famous character, novelist and alter ego Nathan Zuckerman, to give impetus and vitality to a series of memorable stories. Now in his latest work, Exit Ghost, Roth offers what he claims will be the final chapter in the Zuckerman saga. In the process, he revisits many of the same characters and themes that figured in his first Zuckerman novel, The Ghost Writer, from 1979.
Most authors might have given up on Zuckerman a decade ago. He was sixty years old at the time, and living in a remote cabin, isolated from friends, family and even the daily news. As a result of prostate cancer, he was impotent and incontinent, forced to wear a diaper. No producer would build a film or TV series around such an unpromising protagonist, whose situation makes him distinctly unsuited for heroism, romance or almost anything else, for that matter.
Yet Roth defied these limitations, and in American Pastoral and The Human Stain, crafted two of the finest novels of recent times. In those works, we encounter Roth at his best, probing psyches under stress, as they navigate through moral dilemmas and the collapse of personal relationships, biographies intertwined with the tumult of contemporary historical events. But to achieve these grand effects, Roth pushed Zuckerman to the background of the stories. He was narrator, but not the main character, and his debilitated condition almost enhanced his status as the disinterested onlooker.
Now in Exit Ghost, Roth puts Zuckerman back on center stage. In a trip to New York to undergo an experimental treatment to alleviate his incontinence, the aging author finds himself entangled in a series of unexpected dramas that test his fortitude and re-ignite the passions of his younger days. A chance encounter with Amy Bellette (a character who also figures in The Ghost Writer) is dismaying, as he finds the young lady who had charmed him decades before is now an old woman suffering from terminal cancer. An arrogant young scholar who is writing a scandalous biography of Bellette’s former companion E. I. Lonoff, latches on to Zuckerman as a potential source, taking advantage of the older author’s memory lapses and weakened condition to manipulate him.
Against this backdrop, Zuckerman meets and becomes infatuated with a young woman and aspiring writer, Jamie Logan. This is an unpromising affair from almost any angle. Logan is shallow and self-centered, married and four decades younger than Zuckerman, and he is incapable of consummating any relationship. Yet Zuckerman cannot resist the temptation to pursue Logan, although he tries, as best he can, to sublimate his drives into the fantasy of a play he writes with the two of them as characters.