As I was reading Philip Roth’s Everyman, the person sitting next to me noticed the stark black cover and said, “That looks depressing.” I think it is more accurate to call it an existential meditation on mortality. But don’t let even that somber description put you off. Mind you, the book isn’t a blithe beach read, but it is far better than you would think given the topic.
Everyman opens with the funeral of the never-named narrator. The book is essentially the narrator looking back on his life and pondering death as his body and health betray him as he ages. Death is something he never really thought about before retiring from the advertising agency for which he worked as a commercial artist and art director. He always believed “[t]he remote future will be time enough to anguish over the ultimate catastrophe.” But the remote future is now the present.
Our narrator is troubled by the failings of health. He recounts his hernia surgery as a child and the burst appendix that nearly killed him in his early 30s and proudly notes that those were his only hospitalizations until 22 years after the latter. Then, though, he undergoes a quintuple heart bypass, the first in a chain of heart problems that will come with increasingly frequency. The heart problems get to the point he almost begins to hate his older brother for remaining healthy despite the two of them coming from the same gene pool.
What perhaps makes the inevitable even more unyielding is that, as far as this Everyman is concerned, death means only oblivion.
Religion was a lie that he had recognized early in life, and he found all religions offensive, considered their superstitious folderol meaningless, childish, couldn’t stand the complete unadultness — the baby talk and the righteousness and the sheep, the avid believers. No hocus-pocus about death and God or obsolete fantasies of heaven for him. There was only our bodies, born to live and die on terms decided by the bodies that had lived and died before us. If he could be said to have located a philosophical niche for himself that was it – he’d come upon it early and intuitively, and however elemental, that was the whole of it.
As he contemplates life in his retirement, he looks back on growing up, his three marriages and the infidelities that destroyed them. While close with his daughter, the divorces left him estranged from his two sons. Yet there is physical distance between him and his daughter. The narrator moves out of New York City to a retirement community on the Jersey shore after 9/11 but his daughter remains in the city. His entertainment, so to speak, is his vivid recall of events in his childhood and life, thoughts of women and sex, and painting. Yet even memory isn’t sufficient.
But how much time could a man spend remembering the best of boyhood? What about enjoying the best of old age? Or was the best of old age just that[?]
That is a large part of what underlies Everyman. It takes its title from a late 15th-century morality play in which Everyman is summoned by Death. Roth explores similar issues but not in allegorical fashion. How do we deal with aging? How do we face or cope with death? Is there a refuge from the inevitable?
While Roth may not find answers, his exploration of these and related issues from his narrator’s standpoint compresses plenty of thoughts and life in a slim volume. While Everyman may not rank with Roth’s best work or even one of the best of this year, it is a testament to his talent that the reader can actually enjoy reading the contemplation of an otherwise somber and bleak subject.