Philip Roth's Everyman, his twenty-seventh book, is all about death, and appropriately its title on the dust jacket appears boxed in red against a background of black. These initial intimations of foreboding and grievous loss get further deepened by the epigraph from Keats's "Ode to the Nightingale." Beginning with Sabbath's Theater and through the American trilogy comprising American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, The Human Stain and also encompassing The Dying Animal, death, the grand theme that has engaged the American literary imagination powerfully since Walt Whitman, is obsessively at work, and, often, as is Roth's characteristic practice, it evolves in relation to the sex drive. This dialectic of Eros and Thanatos in Everyman is explored in an unusual context in that the narrative line of the novel intriguingly conflates the protagonist's biography with his medical history and thereby makes death unmitigatingly real.
If the reader assumes that this late work is a confessional statement of the novelist's own health anxieties and fear of impending death, this would be pointless speculation. In interviews that appeared around the time when Everyman was released, Roth categorically dispelled such guesswork highlighting the reasons that prompted him to write the novel. As the novelist himself admits, it is the death of his literary mentor and friend Saul Bellow that compelled him to write the novel: "He [Bellow] was 89 I think, when he died. Yet his death was very hard to accept, and I began to write this book the day after his burial. It's not about him—it has nothing to do with him—but I'd just come from a cemetery, and that got me going."
Clearly inspired by the late fifteenth-century morality play Everyman, Roth's Everyman complicates the novelist's attitude to death in interesting ways. Irreverent and dismissive about religion, Roth depicts his Everyman as an American Jew, though this portrayal swerves from an essentializing universalism. [End Page 168] However, this protagonist, a diehard secularist, is susceptible to family feeling, and this is borne out by his fond recollections of his dead parents and his endearing relationship with his elder brother and daughter. Sustaining the ethos of the morality plays which were usually enacted in cemeteries, Everyman too locates large chunks of action in the cemetery. Unlike a typical morality play that associates the human body with sin and depravity, Roth's novel respects the claims of the body, and, in equating the corporeal with life itself, exposes the nullity of death.
Roth's unnamed protagonist is a retired adman who subsequent to the events of 9/11 prefers to leave New York to live in a residential village for the elderly on the Jersey shore. Artistic although not a great artist, Everyman is able to sustain his passion for painting through an advertising career into his retirement. He displays a fierce sense of independence, as befitting one belonging to a creative profession such as advertising that is analogous to art. Strangely though, the endless inventive possibilities animating art manifest themselves nowhere in Everyman but in his sexual ardor. Ever suffering the pangs of mortality, he seeks sex as an analgesic to alleviate this inexorable awareness. It is as if Everyman believes that he can escape death by melting into the mercies of voluptuous women.
The droll way Everyman suggests the title "Life and Death of the Male Body" for his imagined autobiography turns out to be an uncanny moment of precocious self-awareness. In a sense, his life inseparable from the body adds up to experiencing three marriages and a funeral. Interestingly enough, Everyman's consciousness had been haunted by death ever since his boyhood experience of seeing a dead U.S. marine washed ashore on to the Jersey beach. His intimations of mortality deriving from this experience stalk much of his youth, and, rightly, Everyman decides to postpone this fear of oblivion till he reaches the age of seventy-five. With surgery in 1999 for removing the obstruction in his left carotid artery, "death seemed to have become the...