Sun, Oct 07, 2007 - Page 18 News List

[BOOK REVIEW] Pains of life amplified in 'Exit Ghost'

Nearly 30 years ago, Philip Roth began writing the Zuckerman series, now, he kills off its hero, Nathan, after following him through the indignities of old age


By Philip Roth
292 pages
Houghton Mifflin
Hardcover: US

It's been almost three decades since Philip Roth published The Ghost Writer, the first of his many novels chronicling the adventures of his best-known alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman. In that book Nathan was a starry-eyed young writer, eager to worship at the altar of high art and convinced that he had found a role model in the reclusive writer Lonoff, who led a quiet existence in the Berkshires, Massachusetts, far from the distractions of the city and far from the literary hubbub.

"Purity. Serenity. Simplicity. Seclusion," young Nathan thinks. "All one's concentration and flamboyance and originality reserved for the grueling, exalted, transcendent calling. I looked around and I thought, 'This is how I will live.'"

In subsequent Zuckerman novels, we learned that Nathan went on to achieve a very un-Lonoff-like fame with a scandalous best seller (not unlike Roth's own Portnoy's Complaint) that cut him off from his family and his past, and forced him to grapple with the unreckoned consequences of his art. We also learned that after a series of tumultuous, passive-aggressive relationships with various women and an assortment of medical and psychological woes, Nathan had finally come to replicate Lonoff's reclusive existence. For over a decade now, he has lived alone in a small house on a dirt road in the Berkshires, seeing few people and hearing little news. His days are spent turning sentences around; his nights are spent reading the great masterworks of literature he discovered as a student many decades ago.

"I don't want a story any longer," Nathan declared in Roth's 1998 novel, I Married a Communist. "I've had my story."

Now, in Roth's elegiac new novel, Exit Ghost - a kind of valedictory bookend to The Ghost Writer - Nathan returns to New York to visit a doctor, and finds himself being tempted, against his better judgment, back into the maelstrom of life. He agrees to swap homes for a year with two young writers, Jamie and her husband, Billy, who live in a small Upper West Side apartment. And he finds himself suddenly smitten with Jamie and hoping, against all odds, that this vibrant, 30-year-old, happily married woman will leave her husband for him - a famously self-absorbed 71-year-old writer, who, after prostate surgery, is both impotent and incontinent.

He also re-encounters Amy Bellette, Lonoff's former mistress, only to discover that the beautiful young woman he glimpsed in The Ghost Writer is now an invalid recovering from brain surgery.

From these bare bones of a plot, Roth has created a melancholy, if occasionally funny, meditation on aging, mortality, loneliness and the losses that come with the passage of time - very much the same themes he examined in his sketchy 2006 novel, Everyman, and his equally slight 2001 novel, The Dying Animal.

Compared with Roth's big postwar trilogy (American Pastoral, I Married a Communist and The Human Stain), which unfolded into a bold chronicle of American innocence and disillusionment, this volume is definitely a modest undertaking, but it has a sense of heartfelt emotion lacking in Everyman and Dying Animal, and for fans of the Zuckerman books, it provides a poignant coda to Nathan's story, putting a punctuation point to his journey from youthful idealism and passion through midlife confusion and angst toward elderly renunciation.

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